By Brooke Nielsen, LMFT
Do you ever feel at as loss as to what to do with your emotions? They can get so big and intense sometimes, you may not know what to do with them.
You might fear that if you fully surrendered to them, you'd become totally overwhelmed, never stop crying, or become non-functional.
I used to think that there were only a couple options when it came to emotions: let them control and overtake me or keep them suppressed and locked away. So most of the time I'd choose to compartmentalize them, stuffing them down by disconnecting from myself or distracting myself with social media or comfort food.
As I grew healthier, I learned how to actually feel my feelings and the importance of taking steps to process my emotions in healthy ways.
A few years later, I was trained in a type of couples' therapy called PACT, and I learned there are four ways that we humans regulate ourselves. By regulate, I mean how we come back to neutral after we feel something. If a car honks at you and you feel surprised/scared/mad, you won't feel that way for the rest of your life. The way that you go from surprised/scared/mad back to neutral is regulation.
Here are the 4 different ways that people regulate themselves and their emotions (it's SO important to understand the difference):
Auto-regulation: an attempt to regulate ourselves that happens unconsciously (without being aware we're doing it). Auto-regulation includes addictive and compulsive behavior, emotional eating, distracting with technology, etc. Auto-regulation isn't inherently bad, but some of the things we do unconsciously have negative consequences. We're also often disconnected from ourselves and our feelings when we auto-regulate.
External regulation: this type of regulation has us looking to others to help us feel better, but it has a "taking" energy to it (we "take" help without asking). Nagging our partner that they don't care about us or "dumping" all our problems on another without asking if we can share are examples of external regulation. These attempts often break down relational bonds rather than build them up, and they aren't often effective in making us feel better.
Self-regulation: this is a regulation strategy done consciously and on our own. Many of the skills people learn in therapy involve self-regulation. Deep breathing, naming our emotion(s), and positive self talk are all examples of self-regulation. Self-regulation is often helpful and positive, though we need to balance it with co-regulation (see below).
Co-regulation: also called mutual regulation. Co-regulation involves getting support from another person, and it's support that the other is knowingly willing to giving. It might look like saying to a friend or partner, "I'm so stressed out right now; can I tell you about it?". Even more powerfully, it can involve another's kind touch (a hug, a touch on the arm), good eye contact, nodding of the head, or an empathetic facial expression.
Co-regulation is incredibly effective; we're wired to be receptive to the emotional help of another. As babies, our parents (ideally) co-regulate us before we have the ability to regulate ourselves by rocking us, displaying empathetic facial expressions and giving eye contact.
The best part of co-regulation is that "the giver" walks away feeling as good as the receiver. It's intimacy-building to help regulate the people we care about.
For many Highly Sensitive People, we're often better at trying to regulate ourselves than we are at receiving emotional support from others. Many of us were shamed for showing feelings or had caregivers who seemed overwhelmed by or couldn't help us with our feelings, so we learned to keep emotions inside and manage them ourselves.
Part of my journey to health as an HSP has involved building relationships with safe people and letting them support me when needed (and vice versa). While vulnerable, this act is deeply healing and highly effective.
Which do you need to practice more of? Self-regulation, co-regulation or both? Luckily, these are skills that we can learn and practice. You might also take this opportunity to consider in what ways you auto-regulate and externally regulate. Are any of them causing you problems?
A few ways to practice co-regulation:
The bottom line is that you have numerous ways to deal with your emotions other than stuffing them or feeling totally overwhelmed by them. These other options come without negative consequences and are healing and effective. And if I could learn them, so can you.