Not lashing out when you’re overwhelmed— when you most want to lash out— is one of the hardest skills for anyone, of any age, to learn.
It’s also one of the most important. Especially for adults.
Kids get talked to a lot about emotional regulation. Visit any preschool or elementary school on any given day, and I assure you you’ll see plenty of teachers working hard to get their students to “use their words” and coaching them on the importance of not behaving destructively when they’re upset.
As adults, though, it’s kind of assumed that we’ve either been taught how to do all of that, or we’ve figured it out since we were kids.
In fact, when someone tells you to “be an adult” about something, what they’re usually referring to is getting a handle on your intense emotions before you act out.
The thing is, if you haven’t noticed: there are PLENTY of adults who still struggle with emotional regulation.
It may not be our fault…but it’s definitely our problem.
The adults around us may have tried their best to teach us how to manage our feelings (or, maybe they didn’t)…but the fact is, there are a LOT of people who arrive in adulthood without an adequate toolbox for handling negative or overwhelming feelings.
One of the reasons why Dialectical Behavior Therapy became overwhelmingly popular in the early 2000’s was because it was one of the few therapy modalities that focused strongly not even on changing feelings and behaviors, like most therapies do— but simply on not acting impulsively when we’re feeling bad.
The vast majority of adults I’ve ever met struggle with emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation doesn’t have to do with intelligence, it doesn’t have to do with maturity, it doesn’t have to do with morality or character.
It’s a set of skills and tools— and they have to be practiced and refined and experimented with over time.
That means we have to be willing to be bad at them for a minute.
It also means we have to be able to admit to ourselves in the first place that we may not be as “adult” as we like to think we are, or as “adult” as the world thinks we should be.
None of that is as easy as it sounds.
Most of the resistance we experience to developing coping skills is admitting the need for them in the first place.
We’re are in full blown LOVE with the fantasy that we are “adult” or “tough” enough on our own to get by without having to do something as lame as practice coping skills.
Yet that’s exactly the fantasy we need to kick to the curb if we’re going to learn and practice emotional regulation.
There is no shame in admitting you’re not great at handling strong feelings.
In fact, it’s kind of the only way you can get started at getting better.
It’s natural to want to skip right past the “handling feelings” problem to the “changing feelings” possibility— but the only way you access that possibility is by handling that problem.
You can’t calm anyone else down— including any children you happen to be dealing with— if you can’t calm yourself down.
It’s a tough set of skills to develop, no question. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t.
But it’s very, very necessary.
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