Emotional regulation in hard times
or, staying anchored when sh*t gets real
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This week has left me feeling heavy from the compounding weight of global and national tragedies. It’s been difficult to concentrate with the seemingly inescapable news of human suffering. I had a different newsletter cued up to send, but it felt more authentic to write about the role of emotional regulation (also called self-regulation) in tough situations.
Crisis leadership has been a hot topic since the start of COVID, but the reality is that “crises” come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s the onset of a global pandemic, a surgical procedure that ends in an unexpected adverse event, a client sales meeting that went particularly poorly, or the announcement of an impending divorce—when you’re in charge, people look to you for how to respond. To illustrate, I’d like to share two very different but related stories.
The broken nose
Mother’s Day in 2019 was not particularly relaxing—and that was before we ended up in the ER. My kids were still very young, so most of the day was spent soothing infant teething pain and dealing with toddler meltdowns. Late in the afternoon, my husband told me to go upstairs and take some time to myself before our dinner reservation.
I had just settled in to read a book when I heard a crash, a wail, and then crying. I ran downstairs. My son Andrew tripped while running and had barreled, nose-first, into our large wooden coffee table. There was blood everywhere.
Luckily, my husband was already in full-on Grey’s Anatomy mode when I arrived on the scene. When I gently pulled back the ice pack, I saw that Andrew’s nose looked like a smushed mound of play dough. The swelling was intense and he was already starting to develop bruising around both eyes. My response was visceral. I gasped, choked back a sob, and then started frantically spewing questions: “Is he ok? Do you think he has a concussion? Is his nose permanently disfigured? Is his brain ok?” Andrew, who wasn’t even 4, was panic-stricken. He stared crying harder and finally blurted, “Mom, stop it!”
In that moment, it was clear that my frenzied reaction was making the whole experience worse. This was the first really serious injury of my parenting career, and I blew it.
The board meeting
A few years prior, I was asked to present to the Board of Directors of the university I worked for at the time. The topic related to risk management and the stakes were high. My two co-presenters and I were told that one particular board member was “out for blood”, and it was clear that university leadership was tremendously anxious about this meeting. Our job, we were told, was to explain the strengths of the processes in place and assuage the board’s fears.
It was an intimidating task, but it was made worse because of the cues we received from our senior leadership. On the walk over, our bosses debated which of them was most likely to get fired as a result of this meeting. One of them let us know that he would be “hiding in the back”. Before the first presenter walked up to deliver remarks, a VP sitting nearby gave him an ominous “good luck”.
Instead of bolstering our confidence and helping us feel centered before a big presentation, the cues from our leadership team left us feeling anxious and insecure—and perhaps worst of all, questioning whether we would be supported if things went awry. (Spoiler alert: the meeting went fine and no one was fired—but one of my co-presenters left the institution shortly thereafter, in part because he felt chronically unsupported).
Self-regulation is key
Chaos begets further chaos. By virtue of my panicked reaction to my son’s broken nose, I inadvertently transferred my distress onto him. The anxiety that my boss transmitted about the upcoming board meeting added to my unease and trepidation.
When feelings are overwhelming, they can be difficult to contain. Emotional self-regulation refers to the ability to manage distressing emotions, thoughts, and impulses. Put differently, self-regulation helps us take a necessary pause between an upsetting stimulus and our response.
To be clear, self-regulation is different than avoiding difficult emotions (avoidance doesn’t work anyways, as our emotions inevitably spill out—often in uncontrolled ways). Instead, when we self-regulate, we notice and acknowledge challenging emotions and then work to manage them. Ultimately, when we are emotionally regulated, we convey a sense of stability—and stability is a key component of trust.
Self-regulation starts to develop in childhood (which is why it’s particularly important for us to model this important skill to our kids), but it can be bolstered in adulthood. Here are some strategies to help with regulation:
Recognize your triggers and know your limits. I do pretty well in most crisis situations, but I learned from the broken nose incident that I have a hard time with blood. This past winter, when my daughter sliced her finger on an ice skate, I knew to take a step back and let my husband take the lead. I could better regulate myself (and be more useful to everyone) by keeping my distance. Instead, I took charge of reassuring my son and arranging medical care.
Use productive coping skills to de-escalate intense emotions. Therapists recommend a number of potential strategies to facilitate emotional regulation in overwhelming moments. Suggestions include: mindful breathing and reframing the situation to look at it from a different (more positive) perspective.
Find appropriate channels for processing emotions: You may be furious at your ex, but relying on your child for emotional support is inappropriate. Your boss may drive you crazy, but complaining about her to your direct reports is unprofessional. It’s ok to vent, but use discretion when deciding who to turn to.
Finally, when managing a challenging situation—at work or home—do not underestimate the importance of authenticity. Upsetting situations are upsetting! It would be inhuman and tone-deaf to pretend otherwise. Acknowledge the impact that events have had on you in a genuine way, just make sure to express big emotions in a controlled manner.
P.S. For those interested, this website has great ideas for teaching kids self-regulation.
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This was very helpful, Jessica. I'm very good in a crisis, but there are definitely times I struggle to regulate myself otherwise (day-to-day life presents some surprising challenges, I suspect for us all). Thank you!