The Practice of Self-Soothing: The Importance of Emotional Regulation in Relationships
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Conflict in relationships is unavoidable and, when done effectively, is essential to a healthy relationship. However, it's navigating that conflict in a productive, healthy way that we all often face difficulty with. So what is the solution to this problem that so many relationships find themselves struggling with? The ability to emotionally regulate ourselves in the face of triggering conflict.
What is emotional regulation?
The American Psychological Association defines emotional regulation as "the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions." (American Psychological Association, n.d., emotion regulation). In laymen's terms: learning how to oversee and manage our emotions to then determine our actions, instead of feeling like our emotions control us. This learning process is often a journey best traveled with a guide, and a therapist will be best equipped to help you through the process. However, below are some great places to start.
How do we emotionally regulate ourselves?
It begins with your physiology. Emotions are tied into physical responses in our bodies- think blood rushing to your head when you're angry or butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous. Being aware of these emotion when they happen in our bodies helps us to know when we need to make use of our self-soothing skills. This means, our first task is learning to turn our attention inwards to ourselves.
Focus in on Yourself
When we're struggling to emotionally regulate ourselves, we often fall into a state of emotional dysregulation. We feel physically overwhelmed with our feelings and our ability to think things through diminishes. We start acting on emotional impulse, which originates in our "fight or flight" response. Some people may have a fawn or freeze response as well, or even a combination of those. Knowing how you respond in times of conflict or "danger" will help you learn what physical signs accompany that reaction. For example, if you're someone who tends to lean into conflict and get combative with your partner, you might have a "fight" response. Pay attention to what happen in your body when this response is activated- do your hands get sweaty? Does your body feel hot? Another example: maybe when conflict arises in a relationship you start blame or talk negatively about yourself. Perhaps you find yourself just keeping quiet about your feelings to avoid conflict all together. This could mean you have a "fawn" response. You may feel a "pit" in your stomach, or a stomach "dropping" kind of feeling. The solution to moving out of emotional dysregulation is knowing when you are starting to experience that dysregulation and then taking action to self-sooth.
Call a Time Out
So you're able to identify that you're becoming emotionally overwhelmed and dysregulated. You know you need to use your self-soothing skills before you can continue the conversation or it's going to turn into an argument. The idea seems simple, but you'll need to call a time out. Now, this time out needs to be just that, a mutually agreed upon time out before returning to the conversation at hand. Talk to the other person who you find yourself in arguments with about using a code word or a hand signal that you each get to use when either of you needs a break from a conversation. Prior to use of this time out signal, agree on the amount of time you'll both take (i.e. at least a 20 minute break but not more than 12 hours.). Then, make sure you use that time to really relax and intentionally use those self-soothing skills, not stewing and making yourself more upset or angry. If you and this person are struggle with implementing this system or have found that taking time out's are not working, help from a couples counselor or family therapist may be the solution.
Remember, different self-soothing skills work for different people, so experimenting with different techniques to see what works best for you is recommended. Learning to sooth will open you up to positive change within your relationships with others and with your relationship to yourself. Increased positivity, empathy and creativity can all be by-products of this learning journey.
American Psychological Association. (n.d). Emotion Regulation. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved July 12, 2022 from https://dictionary.apa.org/emotion-regulation.