Updated: May 5
When we face difficult situations, it is common to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or anxious. In these moments, we sometimes lose control of our emotions. One key to relationship success is recognizing when we are struggling and taking steps to get back on track. The problem is that once our emotions kick in, it’s not always easy to manage and express emotions in a way that is appropriate.
The ability to regulate emotions is a critical interpersonal skill, and it's especially important for leaders who have the added responsibility of setting the tone for their teams and organizations.
There are at least nine different strategies for regulating emotions (Garnefski et al., 2001). When you reflect on the last few times you experienced a difficult situation, you might notice that you tend to use one of the nine strategies more than others.
Do you tend to blame yourself or others, ruminate on the situation, or catastrophize? Or do you tend to use more positive strategies such as putting things into perspective, refocusing on the positive, reappraising the situation positively, or accepting it?
It's worth considering which strategies you tend to use in difficult situations because understanding your pattern of behavior can help you become more aware of your emotional responses and develop more healthy coping mechanisms. Most of us are too familiar with the less helpful strategies, so what follows are some actionable techniques for the positive emotional regulations strategies.
Put Things Into Perspective
Putting things into perspective involves looking at a situation or problem in the context of the larger picture.
Consider the context of the situation. What is the bigger picture? How does this challenge fit into your overall life or goals? Is it a temporary problem or a more long-term issue? Thinking about the context of the situation can help you see that it may not be as dire as it seems in the moment.
Consider your values and priorities. What is most important to you in life? Is this challenge aligned with your values and priorities, or is it taking up space and energy that could be better spent elsewhere? Keeping your values and priorities in mind can help you make decisions and take actions that are in line with what truly matters to you.
Think about what you have control over and what you don't. Spending time worrying about things that are outside of your control can be a futile and draining exercise. Instead, focus on the things that you can control and take action on those. This can give you a sense of agency and help you feel more in control of the situation.
Consider the long-term consequences of the challenge. Will this be a problem in a year from now? Five years from now? Ten years from now? Thinking about the long-term can help you see that many challenges are temporary and will eventually pass.
Think about the worst-case scenario. While it may not be a pleasant exercise, considering the worst-case scenario can help you see that things may not be as bad as you thought. And even if the worst does happen, you can often find a way to cope and move forward.
Refocus on the Positive
Positive refocusing involves shifting your focus from negative thoughts and emotions to positive ones.
Reframe negative thoughts in a more positive light. For example, instead of thinking “I can't do this,” try reframing the thought as “I'm learning how to do this.” A small shift in perspective can help you feel more confident and capable, and can make it easier to tackle challenges.
Seek support from others. Sometimes, talking to someone who can offer a different perspective or provide a listening ear can be really helpful in putting things into perspective. Whether it's a friend, family member, therapist, or coach, having someone to talk to can give you the space to process your thoughts and emotions.
Actively seek out positive experiences. Enjoy a beautiful sunset, spend time with loved ones, or try a new activity. When you focus on the positive aspects of your life, it can help to shift your perspective and make you feel more hopeful.
Seek out positive people. Look for people who embody the qualities that you admire, and spend time with them. Surrounding yourself with positive people can help you feel more motivated and inspired.
Positive reappraisal involves reframing a difficult situation in a more positive light.
Focus on the silver lining. Find the positive aspects of the experience. This could be something as simple as learning a new skill, gaining a new perspective, or finding gratitude for what you have.
Look for opportunities for personal growth. Identify what you can learn from the experience and how you can use it to become a better person. For example, you might ask yourself, “How can I use this situation to improve my skills or knowledge?”
Practice gratitude. Find things to be grateful for such as support of loved ones, or for the opportunity to learn and grow from the experience. Focusing on gratitude can help you to feel more positive and content.
Engage in activities that bring you joy and happiness. Listen to your favorite music, engage in a hobby, or spend time in nature. When you do things that make you happy, it can help to shift your focus away from negative thoughts and emotions, and can help you to feel more positive.
Acceptance involves acknowledging and accepting difficult thoughts, emotions, and situations as they are, without trying to change or resist them.
Acknowledge your thoughts and emotions without judgment. Allow yourself to feel what you feel without trying to push away or suppress difficult emotions. When you allow yourself to feel your emotions fully, it can help you to process them and move on.
Practice mindfulness. Bring your attention to the present moment and accept it as it is, without trying to change it. When you are mindful, you are able to observe your thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them. As a result, you will feel more grounded.
Let go of the need for control. Instead of trying to control the situation, try to accept what is happening and let go of the need for control. This technique can help you to feel more at peace.
Engage in self-compassion. Be kind and understanding towards yourself, and acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes and experiences difficult emotions. When you practice self-compassion, you are able to accept yourself and your experiences without judgment, and this can help you to feel more positive and resilient.
A key feature of self-awareness is knowing your patterns of behavior and adjusting them when they are not serving you well in your interpersonal relationships. If the strategies you have been using when you face difficult situations are not working for you, then consider practicing some of the other strategies and techniques described above. When you invest in your emotional well-being, you can build stronger relationships, become a more effective leader, and lead a happier, more fulfilling life.
Garnefski, N., Kraaij, V., & Spinhoven, P. (2001). Negative life events, cognitive emotion regulation and emotional problems. Personality and Individual differences, 30(8), 1311-1327.