by Monica A. Ross, LPC
People who practice resiliency also have the capacity to build emotional flexibility and to self-regulate. Emotional flexibility. What do we as psychotherapists mean by “emotional flexibility”? Emotional flexibility is this idea that we are not our emotions, or that maybe rather we are more than our emotions.
Taking this into account affords a person the possibility of taking a step back even when feeling at the height of sadness, anxiety, and emotional pain. It gives the ability to gain separation from the moment and the feeling that we are experiencing that is causing the discomfort.
Emotions come and go throughout the day, from the anger we might feel at the person who cut us off in traffic, to the sadness and despair when remembering the person whom we recently lost, to the feelings of excitement and elation when we find out that our bonus check was higher than anticipated!
There are so many emotions we cycle through on any given day, week, month, or year.
But we don’t have to be overcome by emotion such that our emotion substitutes for logic. From a CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy perspective that would be called emotional reasoning, which I wrote about in a previous post.
I know myself for example to be intuitive, introverted, feeling, and perceptive. Emotion therefore really appeals to someone like me. That having been said, I also know logically that there are things that can be done to pull myself out of an emotional state when my emotions overwhelm.
One of those things is to gain perspective. This is also known as cognitive reappraisal or reframing. Friends and family can assist with helping us to gain perspective on a situation—a therapist can also help with gaining perspective.
In other words, is there an alternative way of looking at this event that does not lead down the path of emotional pain?
Example: “I lost the basketball game because I didn’t practice hard enough. I’m a failure.” versus “I showed up to the game and did my best. That is all I can do. There is always room to grow and get better.”
Looking at things from an alternative perspective, one that puts things in a more positive light, is not done in an attempt to invalidate a feeling—but more to notice that as our perspective changes so too do our feelings. It’s about recognizing that there are some things that we can control and there are some things that lie outside of our control.
We can control our perception. We can control our attitude.
If someone is unkind or we feel mistreated in some way, if things flat out do NOT make sense, the best we can do is try to approach the source and ask for clarity—to try to communicate through the situation.
Just as often as not we may not get that opportunity.
Another technique to use to pull out of emotional pain then is to focus on something to look forward to. This goes under the self-care category. Get a massage, take a day trip, buy a new set of clothes, read a favorite book, cook a favorite meal, plan for the future—all in an attempt to pull out of a negative spiral.
Along with the ability to practice emotional flexibility, resilience is about the ability to practice self-regulation. When we are infants, we borrow from our caregiver’s ability to regulate. Think of the infant who, when crying unconsolably, stops crying immediately when held in his mother’s arms. At that stage of life, we are borrowing from our caregiver’s ability to soothe in order to soothe ourselves.
Eventually the child grows and hopefully learns to regulate on his own—to move from emotional state to emotional state without acting impulsively and with the ability to self-soothe, to take action to pull out of a negative emotional state without the reliance on others or resorting to temporary unhealthy fixes.
This includes the ability to talk oneself down from being reactive in the moment and to know when and how to seek help if needed, to practice self-control. It’s very hard in times of great stress, or when facing triggers to maintain this calm state and presence.
Sometimes we feel so very disrespected or so poorly or unfairly treated by a person or an event that it’s hard not to want to lash out in anger. Emotional regulation means doing the opposite of that impulse. It could also mean taking something like anger and putting it to good use. The aim is not to avoid or shut down an emotion.
The aim is to feel, but also to appropriately direct the emotion or to find ways of expressing the emotion that work towards our own benefit and not to the detriment or harm of others. Anger, for instance, can be a great emotion to experience in order to facilitate growth and change, but not so much when turned into hurtful words or fists to tear other people down or turned inward to tear ourselves down.
Sometimes there is the opposite impulse coming from the strong emotion—to shut down or not to feel—to back away or withdraw—to cross one’s arms, put up a wall. If this is your go-to practice, try doing the opposite.
Develop the awareness about when a threat is internal and when external. Stay present and lean forward. See what happens.
In either situation, on the side of the one crossing one’s arms and stonewalling or the side of the one being emotive and critical—take a step back. Gain distance—and perspective. Wait for a more calm moment and separate the facts of the situation from the assumptions and opinions made.
Then focus on the positive.
This topic on perspective seeking and emotional flexibility and self-regulation makes me think of the Proust quote, which as it turns out is often a misquote. The misquote as we know it is: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.”
As this article points out, Marcel Proust’s words coming from Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time), Volume 5 “The Prisoner” were actually: “Each artist seems thus to be the native of an unknown country, which he himself has forgotten. . . .The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. . . .”