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Monday, July 12, 2021

The Art of Self-Regulation

 


If no one ever showed you how to walk, or if no one ever walked in your presence, you would probably still be able to learn on your own, but it would take much longer. In other words, having a role model or a step-by-step plan makes it infinitely easier to reach your goal.

It’s the same thing with self-regulation, one of the cornerstones of emotional maturity. By knowing how to self-regulate, you are able to calm yourself in a heated or potentially explosive situation, as well as situations that cause you great pain and sorrow. Self-regulation is also something of great value in a situation such as the current global pandemic, because it allows you to calm racing thoughts of panic, stress, and fear. You may have read some of the articles about self-regulation in this newsletter, but today I propose to give you a blueprint that can be adapted to most situations.

Whenever you are reactive, or have knee-jerk reactions to anything at all, or are overwhelmed with pain that buckles you, you display a lack of self-regulation. You are not regulating yourself. In other words, you have no control over yourself. But control is a fraught concept, and what is does not mean is that you keep yourself in a rigid position of no reactions – and no emotions - at all. Rather, control implies that you make healthy choices about how you react, while observing your thoughts and emotions.

Let’s imagine you have just received extremely bad news about your job or financial situation. Or imagine that you have received an unusually hurtful message from a family member, perhaps a parent, a partner, or an adult child. You can feel your heart beginning to pound. Perhaps you feel heat coursing through your upper chest and head.

Here is where the importance of the first step should not be underestimated – a first step which is closely aligned with being conscious and aware about yourself. If this is not yet something you’ve worked on, please see Mindfulness: Change Your Life With This 15-Minute Daily Exercise, because it will be nearly impossible for you to properly take this first step without being aware at least part of the time. And you probably know that being aware at a time of strong emotions is much harder than when you are calm. Therefore, if you have not yet begun to practice becoming aware, those high emotions will keep you from taking the step.

  1. Being aware - the first step - allows you to recognize that not only is there something going on inside of you, and that you are on the verge of reacting, due to whatever the outer circumstance is, but that you have a choice. Having a choice implies having freedom about how you are going to react – or continue reacting.
  2. Next (and realize that this literally takes nano-seconds, much less than it is taking you to read this article), take a deep breath and interrupt the thought flow in your mind, and tell yourself that before you pay attention to any of those thoughts, even though your heart is pounding, and even though you feel heat rising in your body, or tears coursing down your cheeks, you will focus on finding some inner harmony, the beginnings of inner peace. You want to achieve this because by so doing you will be able to choose your reaction.
  3. Third, use your connection to nature (that you are fostering as per the mindfulness exercise above) and deliberately look at something from nature outside your window, or in your home, or wherever you are, that allows you to feel a small sensation of peace. Notice that there is a slight lessening of the reactive feelings and desires, simply because of this connection to nature.
  4. If the occasion is a small thing (you are impatient at a bank because the line is long, and the clerk is slow; your partner is once again late; your seven-year-old has carelessly broken a vase with great sentiment attached to it; your teenaged son has just called you by an epithet), this small step may be enough. In that case, you will have noticed that your accelerated heartbeat, or the heat inside, or the knee-jerk reaction is no longer at the forefront, and that you are able to choose a reaction that serves you better. In other words, a reaction that does not cause further stress and turmoil in you by being aggressive, explosive, rude, or thoughtless.
  5. Furthermore, at this point you will be able to calmly review your inner self-dialogue and understand how and where you could choose to change it by literally changing your thoughts about what just happened. Not – I hasten to add – by pretending the events were different, but by how you describe them to yourself in your head.
  6. If, however, the occasion is more serious, more steps to achieve that first bit of inner equilibrium are called for. If you are in the middle of a situation that requires a timely response or reaction, and you are already able to give it now, do so.
  7. If, however, you cannot yet give such a response from a place of inner balance, then, if at all possible, say that you need some time to reflect and that you will pick the matter up again later, or the next day. And then remove yourself from that place, either by going to another room, if this has taken place in your own home, or by actually leaving the location, if you are not in your home. Requesting time to consider the situation will also work in many professional situations.
  8. Now, still noticing that your inner self has regained a small measure of peace, put on some music that you know typically brings you joy, well-being, and/or peace (if you have no such music, begin preparing a playlist). Do not play anything that causes nostalgic emotions to arise. The music should be emotion-neutral with regards to your past, but that creates joyful emotions in the present. Notice how listening to this music (it might only take a few minutes) further brings you towards harmony and inner well-being.
  9. If you require more processing in order to gain yet more inner calm before choosing your reactions (and remember, not all difficult occasions require an immediate and face-to-face reaction, but rather an inner reaction), then here are some more steps to take:
  10. At this point you have spent about 10-15 minutes processing your inner state in order to self-regulate. Noticing how you are feeling somewhat better, but not yet anywhere near where you might like to be (especially if the incident was particularly volatile), you might now decide to spend 30-60 minutes distracting yourself, in order to give that inner space more time to de-escalate. I don’t often recommend distractions, but if the situation requires more calming, it can form an excellent part of your repertoire. You might choose to read something from your personal library that – just as the music does – helps bring you to a place of well-being. Or you might watch something that has the same effect, or – simply read or watch something that is enjoyable and serves to momentarily distract you.
  11. When you finish, again observe your inner and outer state. Notice the improvement. Remember to not ruminate on the situation. At this point we are less concerned with what actually happened, and with your thoughts about the subject, than we are with this inner calming process. Understand that until you truly feel calm enough to be serene in your appraisal of what just occurred, there is little point in reacting.
  12. If more calming is required, you might choose one person who is close to you (not more, because continually repeating the story simply makes it worse for you) with whom to speak. Try to recount it calmly, try not to blame, try simply to process. Also notice, as you speak, if your inner state remains more or less the way it was before telling the story, or if it accelerates again. If so, you are probably allowing yourself to blame and get angry or hurt in the re-telling, as opposed to trying to remain calm and objective.
  13. If appropriate, time-wise during your day, eat a small amount of something that you find particularly delicious.
  14. If you have been following these steps, by now you will find yourself - if not fully calm and centered - at least much more calm than the way you were when the situation first occurred.
  15. A short mindfulness walk referenced above would be useful now (Mindfulness: Change Your Life With This 15-Minute Daily Exercise)
  16. If you practice meditation, now is a good time to do so.
  17. If it is close to bedtime, go to sleep and visualize a scene from nature that you find calming (I go to my grandmother’s plant-filled solarium that I visited as a child, on the edge of a lake in Germany, and the grounds that surrounded it).
  18. The next morning, run everything that happened through your mind. Notice if your inner state remains calm. If not, repeat some of the earlier steps.
  19. Review your choices. Remember that you now have a greater variety of choices than you did when everything first occurred, before you took these steps.

The more you practice some - or all - of these steps, the more this process will become – if not automatic – then at the very least quite easy. You will be accustomed to observing yourself and all your thoughts and emotions and reactions, and then observing how relatively quickly (in time) you are capable of bringing yourself to a state of inner harmony despite the events. And then you are free to choose your reactions. Self-regulation is now part of your repertoire.

Note: individuals who self-regulate successfully are healthier than those who don’t, and also have a higher positive immune response. 



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"Fatherless Women & Motherless Men"


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See the preview (click on the title below) to my online video course  




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