“No one is an island, complete in itself,” writes John Donne. We need others and others need us. The emotions of others affect us as much as our emotions affect others. This deep emotional connection is what strengthens us, but it also makes us more vulnerable.
Indeed, we can run the risk of becoming extremely dependent on the emotional support of others, which deprives us of the ability to develop emotional self-management tools. It is normal that from time to time we need someone to calm, comfort or encourage us; but if this becomes the norm and we are unable to manage our emotional states on our own, we will have a problem, because we will depend on extrinsic emotional regulation.
What is extrinsic emotional regulation?
The people around us often play a key role in helping us manage our emotions. If we have an important project, for example, we may feel anxious or irritated by sensing that we are not moving forward and the deadline is approaching.
In this state, at times, our attempts to manage emotions can fail and end up generating more frustration. Then it is when our partner arrives, he realizes that we have entered a destructive cycle and helps us to get out of it.
An extrinsic emotional regulation has occurred, which is the process by which one person influences the emotional state of another, consciously and with a specific goal in mind. The person who influences the other is called the "regulator".
Neither empathy nor emotional contagion, extrinsic emotional regulation goes much further
Extrinsic emotional regulation is not to be confused with empathy or simple emotional contagion, it is a different process that they are a part of:
1. Intentionality. Unlike emotional contagion, which occurs automatically, often without being fully aware of it, extrinsic emotional regulation involves intentionality. The regulator has the goal of influencing the emotions of the other person, he is aware of wanting to change that emotional state through his actions, both to encourage those who are sad and to calm those who are angry.
2. Acting. We can empathize with a person, connect with their feelings and understand them, but that doesn't necessarily mean we do something to influence their mood. In extrinsic emotional regulation, on the other hand, the regulator takes an active role in influencing the other. It can range from advice or an alternative interpretation of the problem to a hug that gives confidence and security.
3. Changes in positive or negative emotions. Extrinsic emotional regulation doesn't just improve people's mood, encouraging them when they're down or calming them down when they're angry. This process can also reduce positive emotions or even generate negative emotions. For example, a regulator can raise our anxiety level to help us meet a deadline or reduce our enthusiasm for a very risky project.
The 5 mistakes of emotional regulators
All of us, at some point, acted as regulators of the emotions of others. However, in some cases we can end up causing harm with the best of intentions.
1. Not realizing that emotion is necessary. One of the main mistakes we make when trying to manage the mood of others is not realizing that, perhaps, emotion is needed at that moment. For example, maybe a little eustress is just what we need to finish a project on time, so if someone tries to relax, it won't help us much. The regulator should always carefully weigh the costs and benefits of maintaining the emotion he wishes to change versus the benefits that the emotion he intends to establish can bring.
2. Choose the wrong strategy. To influence another person's emotional state, we need to consider a strategy, which can be to encourage them to take a walk to relax or talk to release repressed emotions. But if the strategy fails, it can cause more harm than good. For example, it has been shown that talking about the trauma just suffered can contribute to its consolidation.
3. Expressive suppression. One of the most damaging extrinsic emotional regulation strategies is usually expressive suppression, which involves minimizing the person's problem or concerns. Phrases such as “don't worry, it's nothing” can have the opposite effect because the person will not feel emotionally validated, on the contrary, they will feel they have to hide their emotions because they are not socially accepted.
4. Don't put yourself in the other's place. Sometimes we have the best of intentions, but we can't get rid of our self-centeredness to help others. We believe that the strategies that work for us must have the same effect on others, and they don't. Just because we want to go to a party when we're feeling lonely or sad doesn't mean it's the same for others, it often has the opposite effect. Therefore, if we try to manage the emotions of others from our own perspective, we will have great chances of being iatrogenic.
5. Give up too soon. Emotional regulation is a complex process that often takes time. We can't turn sadness into joy in the blink of an eye, so giving up too soon after the first try is a common mistake when trying to help each other.
Do you manage your emotions or do you allow others to regulate them?
Everyone, at some point, needs help managing our emotions. When we are going through a particularly difficult time, such as the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one, sometimes we need someone to support and comfort us. It's normal.
But if we come to depend almost exclusively on others to regulate our affective states, we will have a problem, because it means that we are unable to identify, understand and / or regulate our emotions.
Leaving the management of our emotions in the hands of others involves developing an emotional dependency, so that we can feel lost and confused without that person. It is as if we are a small child unable to manage his emotional reactions, which can lead us to make very bad decisions. Therefore, although extrinsic emotional regulation is a normal phenomenon, we must make sure that we resort to it only in specific cases.
The depletion of emotional regulators
Extrinsic emotional regulation can also affect people who are forced to act as emotional regulators for others. These people have to bear the weight of other people's emotions - in addition to their own - and this can lead to a real empathy syndrome.
Having to depend on the other person's emotions to help them handle them more assertively can be tremendously exhausting, especially since in the long run these people end up bearing responsibilities that don't correspond to them. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be emotionally available to help others, but we need to make sure it doesn't become the norm.
Indeed, feeding that addiction will not be good for anyone, so if we really want to help, we must be able to accompany without invading and supporting without supplanting.