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The role of emotional regulation

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This is the third post in our six-part series on resilience, where we examine the key drivers that provide a recipe for building resilience for yourself, your teams, and your workforce. Each post will feature real-world stories of human resilience.

Happiness. Sadness. Disgust. Fear. Surprise. Anger. Emotions come in all shapes and sizes, don’t they? At times like these, when you’re being asked to flex and bend in new and challenging ways, emotions can vary greatly. And it’d be easy to get stuck in a rut of negative emotions, letting uncertainty dictate your thoughts and actions.

The good news is there are exciting techniques you can leverage to work with your emotions rather than being overwhelmed by them. And even though difficult emotions will likely arise in tough times, you can move forward with confidence knowing you have the right tools in place.

Thoughts > Emotions > Actions

In my last post, I shared how cognitive agility can be a game changer to help us pivot out of a negative mindset. But, as you’ve probably experienced yourself, this can be especially hard when negative emotions are running high. But why is this?

Picture your emotions as a layer that lives between your thoughts and actions. When you have negative emotions, this layer constricts—narrowing the options that seem available to you. Yes, you’re right: it is the old “fight, flight, or freeze” dynamic. When you're in a state of fear, your options for action seem to quickly scale down to the bare minimum—with options that usually don’t serve your best interests. 

However, when you learn how to better regulate your emotions, that layer between thought and action relaxes, offering a feeling of more choice and possibility around how you respond to any situation, even the most difficult ones. Keep reading for tips on regulating your own emotions.

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is the extent to which we regulate our emotions to stay calm and collected. BetterUp’s research shows that people in the top 25% of emotional regulation are 6.5x more likely to be in the top 50% of resilience. 

Like cognitive agility, emotional regulation can be learned. In fact, BetterUp’s research shows that individuals who start out low on emotional regulation increase by 88% after 3–4 months of 1:1 coaching. In addition to increased resilience, these improvements are also associated with improvements in stress management. 

How do you respond to your emotions?

For many, emotions drive strong external responses. Think of a colleague who has an outwardly defensive reaction to an unexpected business decision that impacts months of work. For others, these same reactive emotions might drive an internal response that is less apparent to others but is just as disruptive. In either situation, the lesson is the same: when we get hooked by our emotions, particularly negative ones, we risk not being at our best; potentially becoming impatient and easily irritated with colleagues, distracted from important meetings, and unable to focus.

To see what this looks like in light of the current pandemic, meet Nadia, a BetterUp member and senior leader at a fast-growing tech company. Nadia, whose story has been anonymized for this post, recently shared with me how heightened stress and anxiety made her hypersensitive to her emotions. As a working professional and parent, Nadia was really struggling with the tension between wanting to lean in more to her career while at the same time managing the chaos of having two demanding kids at home—a responsibility that has become even more challenging now that her school district announced distance learning will carry on through the fall semester. 

While Nadia has been trying to manage her boundaries and workload to avoid burnout, she noticed one of the other female leaders stepping up to take on more responsibility and getting a lot of recognition. Nadia felt herself getting hooked into a negative spiral of thought and actions: 

“Even though I knew it was irrational, I couldn’t stop thinking that my colleague was trying to outshine me at a time when I was really struggling. Suddenly, this colleague I admired and dearly loved working with became a threat to my success. And I started acting as if she really was—questioning her intentions and being on guard in my interactions with her.”

As you can see by this example, how you appreciate and respond to your emotions—and the stories you tell yourself about them—can make a real difference in how you understand and relate with the world around you. In this way, it’s easy to see why an ability to regulate your emotions thoughtfully is so important, personally and professionally. 

How to regulate your emotions: Two simple techniques

The first step in being able to regulate your emotions is noticing. This requires being an observer of yourself. You may notice things in your body (e.g., my heart is racing, my shoulders are tense, my cheeks are getting flushed). You may also notice thoughts that don’t reflect you at your best (e.g., accusations or assumptions about another person). 

Once you’ve realized you’re experiencing a negative emotion, you can create the space to change it. 

To help me regulate my own emotions, there are two techniques I use most frequently: putting myself in their shoes and creating a pause where I slow down and get curious. Indeed, I even have a sticky note above my desk as a daily reminder to do both. In my conversation with Nadia, these techniques also offered a really great lens for reflection and action.

  1. Just like me This is a super simple technique with big value. The way it works is that you create connection with the person you’re feeling negative emotions toward. I find a good way to do this, even when you’re not feeling connected to them in the moment, is to add the clause “just like me” to any thought you’re having about them. 

    When Nadia used this technique, the effectiveness became apparent. “Looking back,” she observed, “I would have said she [the other female leader] is trying to make a meaningful impact on the business and her career success, just like me. She’s not that different from me.”

    We tend to cut ourselves a break (thanks do cognitive biases like the fundamental attribution error). Creating that connection with the other  is a quick way to build empathy and create a more merciful interpretation of the situation.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Viktor E. Frankl

  1. Pause and Get Curious
    The second technique I regularly use is equally simple. I find that, if I take a deep breath and ask a question of myself or of the other person, it gives me enough space to make a choice about how I want to respond—rather than reacting with a knee-jerk response. It allows me to get curious about my initial reactions, feel into my emotions, and make better decisions.

    Getting curious is exactly what Nadia did and it changed everything. In a powerful session with her coach, Nadia worked on naming the emotions she was feeling and why, which led to a breakthrough:

    “Noticing that I was avoiding all the emotions that felt ugly to me,” Nadia explained, “my coach really pushed me to be honest with myself. I finally admitted that I was feeling jealous of my colleague’s ability to lean in and I was dying to know how she does it all. I went from admitting I was jealous to seeing her as someone I could really learn from.”

    As a result of her insights, Nadia was able to tell her colleague what a role model she was for other women and asked her for help navigating these times. They continue to be close allies for each other throughout this pandemic.

Take a deeper dive: Learn more about emotional regulation

For more actionable tips on how to use your emotions as data to remind you about who you are, what you value in life, and what fulfills you, I recommend watching our recent session with Dr. Susan David.

At BetterUp, we are big fans of Susan, an award-winning Harvard Medical School Psychologist and author of Emotional Agility. We had the opportunity to feature Susan as a guest speaker on BetterUp Live, where we discussed the importance of emotional regulation during this pandemic. 

I also highly recommend this podcast on emotions that I use in my class on Coaching Skills I teach at Georgetown University. And if you are seeking hands-on practice, check out this resource that enables you to work on emotional regulation in a safe space. 

No matter what, if you’re feeling challenged by heightened emotions during this difficult time, I’d encourage you to dig in a little bit, take a pause, and get curious. Learning how to regulate your emotions takes work, but the real-life benefits are well worth the investment in yourself. 

Read part 1 and part 2 from this blog series.  

Next week: How self-compassion strengthens resilience