Emotional regulation, Part I: a problem summary

by Swimmer9635 min read5th Mar 201238 comments


Personal Blog

I have a problem with emotions.

I’ve known this for a long time. It’s a very specific problem, one that only affects me a small percentage of the time: most people I know don’t describe me as an emotional person. I’m lucky enough to have been born with the sort of brain that keeps my overall mood on an even keel, no matter how many annoying things I force myself to do.

From my (less than rigorous) comparisons between myself and other people, I think that have good luminosity: almost all of the time, I can trace back the reasons why I feel a certain way and explain it to others in a way that is consistent with my behaviour. I think I know myself pretty well-I don’t like unpredictable situations, I have sucky reaction times, and my brain does not operate at full capacity when under pressure and tends to succumb to the most obvious biases when making decisions. I like to please people, even though I try to give off an impression of not caring what other people think. I have an overactive conscience, and in order to be happy with myself, I need to at least feel like I’m working harder than average. The flip side of my sometimes-rigidity is that I’m not at all impulsive. I may be awful at changing plans in the heat of the moment, but I’m very good at deliberating on my long-term life plan and then carrying it out. Etc. 

I suspect that the reason I’m not considered an emotional person is that my moment-to-moment emotional experience isn’t (usually) very intense. I feel annoyance and frustration, even anger, but not strongly enough to alter already made plans or cause me to do something I’ll later regret. I like analyzing myself, and so most of my basic emotions are accompanied by thoughts about those emotions, and I suspect that this process of deliberate analysis causes the actual emotions to be less intense. I don’t experience joy that often, or that strongly, but most of the time I’m experiencing satisfaction with my life, or thinking about things I find interesting, or taking pleasure in what I’m doing at the moment or what I anticipate doing in the near future.

But there’s one exception to the rule, one area where my emotions are anything but muted, and where years of introspection have failed to help me. It’s like a switch flips in my brain, and I’m pretty familiar now with what specific inputs will flip that switch...but being aware of it doesn’t stop it, meta-analysis of the process makes it worse, and although I can prevent almost all incidents by not doing the things that trigger it, many of those things I would otherwise want to do. Avoidance works in the short term, and I’ve used it in the past, but I don’t want to be the kind of person who has to avoid scary things.

The usual characteristics of this switch-flip are the following: a deep sense of despair, helplessness, and lack of control, accompanied by the knowledge that I’m helpless and out of control because I’m not good enough, because I’m incapable of things that other people find easy, etc. My usual method for dealing with emotions, i.e. a detailed analysis, fails because it triggers a feedback loop of negativity. More recently, I’m often aware during one of these episodes that the ‘evidence’ does not indicate all the bad things I’m thinking about myself, and that my thinking it does is a temporary state (usually lasting only a few minutes), but I can’t force myself out of the state. The best I can do is stop thinking about it...but as I’m sure most of you know, deliberately not thinking about something is easier said than done.


The usual causes of the switch-flip: some kind of competition pressure. Any situation where I want to or am expected to win against other people, rather than just meeting a certain standard, is likely to be a trigger. Failing at something, or letting someone down, is another trigger. My thoughts very quickly escalade into “it’s not fair that I’m worse than everyone else at X” and “I’m never going to be the sort of person that I want to be, because I’m bad at X,” and then my brain goes into a feedback loop of coming up with examples why I’m worse than everyone else X, intensifying the initial despair, which then makes it easier to think of examples.

The other condition, which is necessary to go from a state of silent suffering to one of full-on meltdown, is any kind of social pressure for me not to have a meltdown. Not wanting to embarrass myself, especially if it’s in front of people whose opinions I care about, has almost always had the opposite effect. Being asked to justify why I’m upset makes me more upset, because once in this state I literally can’t explain, usually just because crying gets in the way of talking.

Nowadays, once the state wears off, it has pretty much no effect on me. In hindsight, I’m perfectly aware that I was being silly. Having had a meltdown doesn’t leave me with an aversion to the context that caused it, or cause any particular anxiety about putting myself in that circumstance again. There’s a small aversive effect of having embarrassed myself and not wanting to look stupid again, but I’m pretty stubborn about not letting myself care what others think, so the simple fact of having meltdowns doesn’t nowadays stop me from doing any given activity.

However, in the past the aversive effect was much stronger. My emotional outbursts are the main reason that I left competitive swimming. There was too much cognitive dissonance involved between wanting to meet my coaches’ expectations and knowing that I simply wasn’t physically talented enough to get any faster, and having that dissonance in my head all the time meant a lot of meltdowns. I left swimming in a very negative mental state, and to this day I can’t think clearly about it–I get pulled back under a mild cloud of despair. 

In this case, I allowed my emotions to make my decisions for me. Had I been making the same decision now, I don’t think I would have quit. I had plenty of good reasons to swim other than wanting to make the Olympic team: it kept me fit, involved spending time with people I liked, provided me with endorphins after practice, etc. The only time I’ve come close to being depressed was the year I quit swimming and was faced with sudden exercise withdrawal. I would have liked to have been still fast enough to make the university swim team, whether or not I could expect to win a lot of races for them. Etc. 

Since starting taekwondo nine months ago, the first sport I've attempted since leaving swimming, I’ve had one running-out-of-the-room-in-tears meltdown, one occasion that I remember when I started crying but didn’t run away, and a few other times where my ‘switch’ flipped but where I managed to stick to silent suffering. I find this a huge improvement over my swim team experience. My instructor thinks that it’s my biggest problem. About a month ago, after one particularly silly episode (after an already frustrating class, I had missed the 8:10 bus because class ended at about 8:11, and I had to wait another forty minutes for the next one, which seemed like an incredibly big deal at the time), he gave me a lecture. This made it worse by forcing me to keep my attention focused on the meltdown for twenty straight minutes rather than letting it wear off naturally. He also taught me a meditation breathing exercise, which has been unhelpful so far–again, it keeps my attention focused on ‘I’m doing a breathing exercise right now because I’m about to burst into tears otherwise’, and makes it more likely that sooner or later I'll notice all the people looking at me and I will burst into tears. Giving him a more detailed description of my problem afterwards, when I was in a state that allowed me to talk, failed to elicit any more specific suggestions. My brain, concluding that “obviously he has no idea what he’s talking about,” got ready to move on.

On the bus ride home, though, when I could safely think about dangerous topics in the privacy of my jacket hood, I was forced to conclude that my instructor not knowing how to teach me not to have meltdowns is not actually a full-on excuse to stop searching. Even if my problem is specific, rather than a general lack of emotion-management skills, it’s still going to limit me in some things. (For example, it was a problem for the first four months or so of my current relationship). And there probably is a way out there to solve it.

In spirit of the virtue of scholarship, I’m in the process of doing the most thorough research project that I’ve ever done ‘for fun’. It may end up being more extensive than anything I’ve done for school, too. I’ve already started, but I’m posting this basic description in order to get recommendations for sources I should consult. So far I’ve searched a couple of online databases available through my university library, using keywords such as ‘emotional regulation’, ‘emotional control’, ‘stress management’, and various combinations. I’ve come up with several dozen articles, which I am working my way through to summarize. If there’s anything else I should look for, or if there are any books that I might find useful to consult, please let me know. Likewise, if anyone has ever experienced something similar, I'll take your advice on how you ended up dealing with it. 

Part II will be coming in a few weeks, hopefully, depending on how extensive my research ends up being.