Emotions get the better of us all at times.
There's not a human being on the planet has not reacted in anger, causing harm to self and those we love.
One thing's for sure; we cannot avoid our emotions, no matter how hard we might try. The best we can do is to regulate ourselves in the midst of strong emotions. Psychotherapists call this self-regulation.
As long as I can remember I've had strong feelings. For years I struggled to make sense of my emotional experiences which seemed to add little value to my life at all. At the age of 12, I knew I would need to master my inner experience if I were going to harness the power of this constant swirling inside.
I was fortunate enough that my parents saw the dancer in me and enabled me to train in the discipline of classical Ballet. This gave me a place to feel my feelings in my body not just as a conglomerate mess in my mind. This also lay the foundation for what was to become a lifelong practice in yoga and meditation. It was these tools, practiced consistently over time, that lay the foundation for emotional regulation.
So what is emotional regulation and how does it change our lives?
To regulate is to harness and use constructively.
In our western culture, emotions are frequently dismissed as a distraction rather than a valuable contribution.
Recent enquiry has led to the conclusion that beneath every emotion is an underlying need. The purpose of our emotions is to direct our attention to needs. Needs which are inherently good and common to every human being.
For example, if I feel angry it may be a need for fairness. If I'm sad, it may be a need for nurturing. If I'm confused, it may be a need for clarity.
To regulate our emotions is therefore to use feelings/sensation/reaction to identify our underlying needs.
This is step one. To see our emotions as valuable and constructive rather than distracting distracting or destructive. To do this we practice honouring or “mindfully turning towards”. In practical terms this is to acknowledge bodily feedback in the form of sensation.
Sensation is the fundamental unit of experience. Think about this. Not only is every physical sensation experienced in your body, but every single thought and every single emotion is, by necessity experienced in your body. In fact, anything outside of your body cannot be classified as experience. Whether a bold sunset or rolling ocean waves, it is the sensation on your eyes that is the experience. Whether a nurturing touch or warm bath, it is the sensation on your skin that is the experience.
Sensation is the key to experiencing the universality of thought and emotion.
Sensation helps us to dis-identify with the story, the assumption, or the evaluation, and see the experience for what it is.
Step two is to change the relationship to the emotion.
This requires that we break free of judgement. Judging emotions keeps us beholden to them. The key to recognising this judgement is the word "should". "I should be better at this by now.... I shouldn't have made such a simple mistake.... I should not be thinking like this."
We must learn to separate ourselves from judgement.
The opposite of judgement of compassion. To change the relationship with emotion we practice compassionately embracing them.
This is again where the body is essential as it enables us to locate feelings. Once located I can visualise wrapping my arms around the feeling as though it is a dear friend and hearing the underlying need by paying it my fullest attention.
Step three is integration.
This phase is not to be overlooked.
To integrate is to continue to apply a practice until it becomes second nature. Trying and testing a practice is essential to building confidence but it is the deep integration of a practice that enables a new way of life, ie a new experience of self and the world around us.
In clinical practice, I've found, for the majority of people, this third step is the hardest. To integrate is to rebuild our internal working model in a way which incorporates the new practice and perspective.
To integrate is to override the old model, an old model which may be well entrenched in society.
To build integration sufficiently to overcome that dominance requires the influence of other people who equally value, reflect and apply a practice and perspective.
It is a rare individual who has cultivated a genuine ability to emotionally regulate. For most, the closest they will get is to suppress or deny. For others their closest will be to over express, vent or project, neither of which are true emotional regulation.
If you are fortunate enough to come into contact with someone who has mastered self-regulation, you have stumbled upon a rare opportunity to learn experientially through their embodied knowledge, lived example and sensory exchange. This is why, traditionally, the healing arts are passed down from mentor to student.
Rachel and I are committed to a community built on the foundation of emotional regulation and we are absolutely in the growth phase! We are committed to staying free of dogma, grounded in scientific evidence all underpinned by application and it's your input to the community that meets our need for contribution. We bring developed frameworks based on internal modelling founded on contemplative practice.
Alexis Dennehy draws from post-graduate research in Public Health and over 15 years consulting in contemplative practices. Dr Rachel Hannam is the principal psychologist at North Brisbane Psychologists and runs four busy psychology practices on Brisbane's North Side. They each draw from over 10-years in clinical practice treating anxiety, stress and loneliness using practices shown to reduce emotional hyper-reactivity and increase prosocial behaviour.
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