4 – Self-Regulation
So, let's begin this class with a story. This is a short story of a man riding a horse and as he was riding the horse, he passed by some guy standing on a street, on a side of the street, and a guy standing there asked the rider, "So rider, where are you going?" And the rider said, "I don't know. Why you asking me? You should be asking the horse." The horse is like our emotion and we allow our emotion to bring us wherever it wants to take us. We have no control, or we tell ourselves we have not control. We live our life that way.
So, in this class, self-regulation, we are trying to change the situation.
We want to gain mastery, like the rider gaining mastery over the horse so he can go wherever he wants to go rather than where the horse wants to go.
In this class, we learn to gain mastery over our emotional life so that we can bring it where we want it to be rather than allowing it to take us where it wants.
If we can summarize this class in four words, the four words are: from compulsion to choice, and my friends, this is the basis of freedom, specifically freedom from a tyranny of being in control by your emotions. It's important to note that when we say from compulsion to choice, when we say we have mastery over our emotional lives, it doesn't mean that we never have certain emotions. In fact, there are times when we choose to have "negative emotions".
And let me give you an example. I mean, you would think somebody like practicing meditation like me would never get angry, and so on, right? I was in this situation where I was at a rent-a-car shop and as I was at the counter, I realized that the person behind the counter was trying to rip me off. And so, being a practitioner of mindfulness practitioner and so on, I started noticing anger arising in me. And again, being a practitioner, I was at the stage where I had the choice to turn it off. If I wanted to, it's as simple as this. I can be not angry at a moment. However, I decided that since this person was trying to rip me off, the appropriate response from me is to become angry.
And so, I made a deliberate choice. I made a choice to not turn off the anger and then I feel the full force of the anger arising in me and I felt my face turning red and I find myself shouting at him and banging on the table. And that was by choice. So, that's an important story. It illustrates the idea that it's not about not experiencing certain things.
It's about choosing. Always having the ability to choose the right response for the situation.
This idea of going from compulsion to choice, it turns out it's not particularly new. If in fact it even turns out that it's not particularly Asian. A very famous person from the West who came out with the same conclusion, his name is Marcus Aurelius. He live, I think, in about the fifth century C.E. Anybody knows his day job? His day job is or was emperor. Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome and on the side when he's not working, he was a philosopher.
And Marcus Aurelius, he arrived at a very important insight in his life and he this is what he wrote. He says, "If you are distressed by anything external," and we think also internal but if you are distressed by anything external, "the pain is not due to the thing itself but your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment." And Malcolm Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome figured out from compulsion to choice, which I found fascinating. I also found fascinating that this collection of his thoughts is in his book titled, Meditations, which is kind of a coincidence for our class.
Self-regulation. What is self-regulation? The definition is what you see on the screen right now and as usual it's provided by Daniel Goleman. Self-regulation, Goleman defined, is the process of managing one's internal states, impulses, and resources. And once again, I felt that Dan Goleman defined this very skillfully because in his definition of self-regulation, it goes beyond control. In fact, it even goes beyond just choosing what reaction to have. He also goes into being able to utilize the full range of internal resources. And that is, in a way, the best of self-regulation which we will come to in a couple of minutes.
But first, it's important also to note that self-regulation is not just about self-control.
I mean, when we think of self-regulation that's the first thing that comes to mind, controlling ourselves. Turns out, that's not the only thing. It turns out that there is a full range of other emotional competencies. All of them very useful that has to do with self-regulation. And this is the list you see on the screen right now. The list is: self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, and innovation. What is the one thing in common with all these competencies? And I want to suggest that the one underlying trend, the one thing common is choice.
For example, adaptability. I mean, who among us doesn't want to be adaptable? We all like to be in a situation where something change, environment changes, and we are there. That doesn't affect us. Who among us doesn't want to be like conscientious, like always doing the "right thing" rather than the "easy thing"? We all want to do that but it's so hard for us because we keep feeling that we are overwhelmed by our emotions. Therefore, once you create the mind of choice, being able to choose your own emotional responses, then you create the ability to have all these emotional competencies at the same time. And that is why choice is so important.
There is an important and fascinating topic concerning the relationship between thoughts and emotions.
And it begins with a very interesting question. And here's the question; When an emotion or a thought is about to arise, is it possible to suppress it? Is it possible to prevent that thought or emotion from arising? This is an interesting question. It's so interesting that the person who asked this question was Paul Ekman, who is one of the most prominent scientists or psychologists of our generation. And the person he asked that question was to the Dalai Lama.
So, he asked this question to the Dalai Lama and Paul's opinion is that once an emotion or thought is about to arise, there's no way to stop it. So, he was curious what the Dalai Lama thought. And it turns out the Dalai Lama had the same opinion, that once thoughts or emotions about to arise this is it, there's nothing you can do to stop it.
However, the Dalai Lama added something very important. He says, "Even though you cannot stop a thought or emotion from a rising, a trained mind can let it go immediately. The moment the thought or emotion arises, the mind lets it go." And that is the power. That's a power we have. We do not have the power to stop a thought or emotion, but we have the power to let it go. And that power to let go is the source of choice. And the Buddha had a very beautiful analogy for this state of mind. He says, "It's like writing on water. The moment it is written, it disappears." And so, the enlightened mind, a trained mind is like writing on water.
The moment an emotion or thought arises, it disappears. And that comes with training. It's a beautiful analogy.
That insight leads to another really important insight which is, the underlying relationship between a negative emotion and a negative thought. So, let me suggest here's what the process looks like. For example, let's say Philip says something that created anger in me, that I feel angry about. Let's just say. So, what happens usually, if I wasn't conscious, I would... The process would look like this. The process will be, he says it, I feel triggered, and once I'm triggered, I feel a process of emotion, anger and everything else. And then something happens, really important. That what comes with, what arises alongside with the emotion is, in this case, aversion, which is that I don't want to feel this way.
And because of the aversion, the aversion leads to a thought which is," I don't want to feel this way; therefore, he must be a horrible person. It must be his fault." So, this whole process from starting from stimulus, response, aversion, to thought, this chain of process, if you're unconscious about it, you would think that, "No, it's his fault. It's him." You're always blaming them. And then you bring mindfulness to this process, you will notice that each stage of this process is a distinct, qualitatively distinct experience. And most importantly, you will notice that the negative sensation of the emotion is distinct from the aversion.
I told you this was a suggestion. We can verify or falsify your practice matures. I suggest that once you recognize this, there is a possibility that you can let go of the aversion and then the moment you let go of aversion, you might find that a negative thought doesn't arise or if it arises it's very weak. And then you'll say, "Ah!" You can experience this whole entire process without thinking that person is a bad person. So, why is that important?
That is important because once you understand this whole process, you create the power, the ability, to recover.
You understand that stimulus perception response aversion and so on. If you understand this whole process and you are able to let go of your aversion, you'll find your ability to experience negativity in life vastly increases because you find the ability to recover from these experiences.
And there's a person in our class from a couple of months ago who had this epiphany. He discovered that, with knowing the understanding this process and having gone through the training that we went through today, he discovered that when he's triggered, the first thing he discovered is there is a time boundary, with the practices that we went through today, he can limit the amount of time that he felt bad. And for him, it was about 30 minutes. And from his point of view, 30 minutes later, he recovers, he's back. My mind's thinking again.
He discovered a second thing. He discovered that the more he does these practices, the more he does his mindfulness practice, his breathing practice, body scan and so on and the Sibernoff Rul practice, the more he does all this, the shorter the time table it becomes so he can recover quicker and quicker.
And what does that give him? That gave him confidence. I gave him confidence that whatever situation in life that can trigger him, he can handle this. He can recover from this. So, this is a relationship between self-regulation and confidence.
Once you've created the ability for self-regulation, you also create confidence in yourself.
So, in this slide we're going to look at a neural model of emotion regulation. Emotion regulation being one core component of self-regulation. And here, as you can see in the context of a stimulus, that might be interpreted as a threat cue, real or imagined, external or internal. The human brain has been sculpted through evolution to be exquisitely sensitive to cues that might indicate threat or danger.
So, we know that as you can see here in the red bubble, the red circle, emotion, there are limbic and paralimbic brain regions that work together to pick up cues and to respond to them within milliseconds well before there's conscious thought. This is very important because that allows us to survive. But on the other hand, we know that within seconds a person's emotional state can shift into anger, fear, anxiety, intense arousal, and this is a bottom up process in the sense that these are immediate, very powerful emotional shifts that send a bottom up signal to other parts of the brain where other forms of regulation are instantiated.
As you can see here in the blue bubble, that's called regulation. And here these are different capacities that are come online as needed to modulate different aspects of emotion. Perhaps it's intensity, it's duration. Perhaps, introducing a secondary compensatory motion perhaps helping to reduce the arousal and so forth or even the expression of emotions. This involves both cognitive perspective taking or what's called reframing or cognitive reappraisal, changing the meaning of the situation in a way that helps to reduce the toxicity of a certain situation, condition or emotion.
There are other forms of emotion regulation that involve attention regulation. Shifting attention. Shifting where attention is deployed. And this sends a top down regulatory signal that helps to modulate ongoing emotions. This system in humans also involves the way that we think about ourselves i.e. self-talk, internal language, linguistic processing, and also the view of self, meaning if we have an accurate or distorted view of self, a view of self that's beneficial or that's harmful.
All of these systems and many more are interacting with each other from moment to moment in our brains to actually create and modulate our ongoing emotional experience. When this system is working well, meaning that we can experience emotions and modify them, regulate, shape them, we'll have the most powerful form of self-confidence to be able to experience emotions without the aversion, without fear, without fear of amygdala hijack or without the fear of being compelled to behavior as opposed to sitting in choiceful experience.
When the system is not working well i.e. specifically, hyperactive emotional reactivity or inefficient top down regulation, this is when we really begin to spill into catastrophizing, fear of emotions, fear that we're not going to be able to control or handle what we're experiencing from moment to moment and this becomes the basis for anxiety, depression, suicidality,etc. But when the system is working well, this is really a sign of maturity of health, of freedom.
When looking at emotional regulation, it's equally important to understand what emotion regulation and self-regulation is not.
It is not avoiding in the sense that avoiding what actually is or avoiding experiencing emotions or certain thoughts or certain experiences. Avoiding, unfortunately, is a very powerful form of emotion regulation which of course can have short term benefits but long term it actually preamps the ability to develop emotion regulation skills and become more finely tuned to self-regulation.
So, avoidance can be breaking eye contact, not showing up at parties, not attending certain functions or avoiding even engaging in things that might be somewhat fearful or challenging. Self-regulation is also not denying what is. So, this has to do with being in alignment with values and what actually is as opposed to trying to deny things in our environment external and internal.
Self-regulation also is not about suppressing. Even though suppressing, showing your feelings or even feeling certain emotions, at some points might be functional in certain contexts. So, for example, your 2-year-old just bangs her finger and looks up at you and you might want to suppress your own emotional facial expressions at that moment for the benefit of the other, but in general when we talk about suppressing emotion, suppressing showing your emotions, long term it's been linked to more medical problems, more psychological problems.
So, when we think about self-regulation, it's important to discern what it is, what its components, are how it functions in us and also what it's not. And of course, there are many other ways to handle triggers and specifically different types of strategies, motion regulation strategies that we can use to work with our emotions effectively.
So, if you think about a situation. So, for example, you might be at work and you are walking down the hallway and you say hello to a friend and the friend doesn't respond back. Or perhaps she doesn't even make eye contact. That could be a trigger which in a matter of milliseconds can get the amygdala firing emotional reactivity, amygdala and interior insula, personal salience, what's going on, did I do something wrong? The mind starts spinning.
So, what are the range of possible choice points where I can implement a strategy to help deal with the ongoing emotion in that situation? Well, one thing would be attentional control, specifically attentional deployment. Could I distract myself from that moment? Could I possibly focus on non-emotional aspects of that situation? That would be a way to regulate my attention right in the moment to help reduce my emotional reactivity. So, practically I could count to ten. That's one form of distraction. Very effective, short term. I could take deep breaths and focus my attention on the sensation of the breaths. I could focus on my own physiology and notice the sensations that are rising without judgment.
So, those are all are under the category of attention regulation or attention deployment.
Moving further along time if those are not effective there's a whole other range of cognitive strategies that could be very useful in the moment. So, for example, we speak about cognitive reframing or reinterpreting the meaning of the situation.
For example, maybe she's upset about something or she just got a phone call or an email with very bad news and this has nothing to do with me. Suddenly, just reframing the meaning of the situation immediately reduces my reactivity. It's not about me. She's having a very complex or difficult emotion right now. And you could actually see the positives in the situation. Maybe just saying hello to her is sufficient and maybe help her in this moment. I can also make connections with my own pattern of reactivity, "Oh, in the past, I've noticed how I've been hyper-reactive to things that had nothing to do with me.".
Moving along and temporally, there are other forms of emotion regulation which could actually be very helpful, and this could be discussed as metacognitive cognitive strategies. This is seeing the patterns of my own and my emotions and seeing how they arise and my patterns of reactivity where I could actually bring another attitude. For example, willingness to experience the emotions. A certain level of acceptance of emotion arising positive or negative and trusting confidence that, even if it arises, it will dissolve, it will habituate, it will come back down to baseline.
That has to do with a very powerful sense of acceptance, willingness, deep knowing about the nature of the impermanence of emotions and thoughts that go along with it. You could also bring, very practically, a sense of humor or curiosity, "Oh, look at this pattern that's arising. Why is this happening now?" "Wow, look at this. Isn't this, this is my dear old friend, fear, insecurity, vulnerability, hurt.".
There also could be another strategy of meshing. Seeing myself as porous just in the moment and allowing whatever's occurring just to move right through me. That also is a kind of metacognitive emotion regulation strategy. The key thing here is to actually test out in one's own research lab, mind and body, all these different ways of working with our emotions, because you never know in a specific context when and how effective a given method will work.
So, the idea is if I can become familiar with many different methods, I'll have more flexibility at any given moment to apply it and to see which one is optimally effective both for myself in modifying my emotions, understanding the emotions, but also for the benefit of other people around me.
And it behooves us to learn how to test all these different methods of emotion regulation, all these different strategies, because we never know when a given strategy will be most effective or most helpful in a given context. And this is important because it gives us the confidence, the choice, the freedom, to be able to experience emotions fully, have confidence that we can work with them, and be optimally effective for ourselves but also for all of the other people that we're interacting with.