3 Psychological Reasons You Struggle to Regulate Your Emotions

Do you wish you could regulate your emotions better?

  • Maybe you want to lower your baseline level of anxiety and nervousness
  • Maybe you want to stop getting so angry and irritable at small annoyances
  • Or maybe you wish you could move on from some kind of grief or deep sadness

Painful emotions are difficult to live with. So the desire to regulate or control them is understandable. And while it is possible to change the way you feel emotionally, how you go about it matters a lot…

A lot of people make their painful emotions stronger and longer-lasting because they use the wrong emotion regulation strategies.

In the rest of this article, we’ll look at three common reasons why you might find it difficult to regulate your emotions.

If you can learn to identify and let go of these habits, you’ll find your emotions considerably easier to deal with.


1. You intellectualize your feelings

Intellectualizing your emotions means using overly abstract, metaphorical, or conceptual language to describe how you feel.

For example:

  • Instead of saying I’m sad when someone asks you about a recent death in the family, you say Yeah, it’s been really tough.
  • Instead of saying I’m angry when your spouse asks what’s wrong, you say I’m just a little stressed.
  • Instead of saying I’m afraid I’ll lose my job, you say I’m just super overwhelmed and burnt out.

Terms like tough, stressed, and overwhelmed are not emotions. They’re ideas or concepts.

And as adults, most of us get in the habit of substituting these conceptual or metaphorical words for real emotions because it’s less painful.

  • Just coming out with it and saying I’m sad is pretty vulnerable for a lot of people and therefore scary. But saying things have been rough is much more vague and therefore opens you up to less vulnerability.
  • Just coming out with it and telling someone that you’re angry is hard because, for example, you might be worried about them getting angry or upset with you for being angry. Saying I’m stressed lets you avoid any of that.

In other words:

We intellectualize our feelings because it makes them feel less bad.

In the short term anyway…

Even though substituting a vague metaphor for a difficult emotion like fear or shame might help you avoid that feeling right now, it’s wreaking havoc on your ability to regulate your emotions long term.

See, when you get in the habit of avoiding difficult emotions with intellectualizations, you’re effectively teaching your brain that you’re afraid of those emotions—when your brain sees you habitually run away from something, it understandably assumes that thing is dangerous.

This means that you’re slowly and steadily building up a generalized fear and intolerance of painful emotions. So the next time you feel afraid/angry/sad/etc., you’re going to feel fear or perhaps shame on top of the initial emotion. And this compounding of painful emotions is one of the biggest reasons why you struggle to regulate your emotions

Feeling bad is hard enough without feeling bad about feeling bad.

When you avoid difficult feelings by intellectualizing them, you teach your brain that it’s bad to feel bad, which only makes you more emotionally fragile in the long run.

So, try to pay closer attention to the words you use to describe your feelings. And when possible, make an effort to use plain, simple language to describe how you feel emotionally.


2. You try to control your thoughts

One of the most interesting questions in psychology is: Can I control my thoughts?

On some level the answer is of course you can!

  • If I tell you to imagine a pink dinosaur, you can probably do it.
  • Or if I asked you to multiply 13 x 4 in your head, you could probably do it.
  • If I told you to recall who the last President of the United States was, you could probably do it.

Clearly, we can control our thoughts to some degree.

But try this: Whatever you do, *don’t* think about a pink dinosaur.

Well, could you do it? Yeah, probably not.

When you tell your mind not to think of a pink dinosaur it (annoyingly) does the opposite and images of pink dinosaurs start popping into your head despite the fact that you don’t want them to.

In fact, there are tons of examples of uncontrolled thinking…

  • Old memories sometimes just pop into mind for no reason.
  • A worry about your health could jump into consciousness after watching a movie where a character dies of a long, drawn out health issue.
  • A song might get stuck in your head and play itself on repeat for a few hours.

Clearly, we don’t have total control over our thoughts either.

I bring all this up because the single most important factor in how you feel emotionally is how you think…

  • If you’re constantly worrying, then you’re going to feel constantly anxious
  • If you’re constantly ruminating on past mistakes, then you’re going to feel pretty sad or guilty
  • If you’re constantly telling yourself what jerks other people are, you’re going to constantly feel angry

How we think determines how we feel.

If this is true, then one of the best ways to regulate our emotions would be to regulate our thoughts, right? Think happier, more pleasant thoughts and I’ll experience happier, more pleasant emotions, right?

Technically, yes. But it’s very easy to start off with the intention of controlling your thoughts only to end up being controlled by them…

  • Have you ever found yourself worrying, then started telling yourself to stop worrying, only to find yourself worrying even more and feeling more anxious?
  • Or, have you ever noticed yourself feeling angry, then started listing all the reasons why you shouldn’t feel angry, only to find yourself feeling just as angry but also guilty now too?

Trying to control your thoughts often backfires and leads to more unhelpful thoughts which lead to even more intense and dysregulated emotions.

A far better strategy is to simply acknowledge and accept difficult thought patterns like worry or rumination, and then focus on controlling your attention instead.

And the reason is simple:

You have far more control over your attention than your thoughts.

Here’s a quick example:

  • You’re at work and you give one of your employees some fair but tough criticism on a piece of work.
  • Afterward, you find yourself worrying about whether you were too harsh and starting to feel anxious and guilty as a result.
  • You know you did the right thing, but it’s hard to shake those feelings of anxiety and guilt.
  • So, how could you regulate those emotions best?
  • OPTION 1: Try and control your thoughts around the incident and keep explaining to yourself that you did the right thing and don’t need to feel bad. And while it might help to some degree, you run the risk of worrying even more—What if he quits over this? It’ll take forever to find a replacement, etc.—and feeling even more anxious.
  • OPTION 2: Take control of your attention and try to shift your focus onto something more productive. For example, you might get up, put on a podcast, and go for a quick 10-minute walk, then come back and refocus on a different project.

In my experience, OPTION 2 works far better and more reliably than OPTION 1.

So, if you find yourself overthinking difficult emotions and only getting more and more wrapped up in them, try this instead:

Let your thoughts do whatever they want and take control of your attention instead.


3. You judge yourself for how you feel

In #1 above, we talked about how intellectualizing your emotions was really just an avoidance strategy. And then when you get in the habit of avoiding your emotions, it tends to make them worse long term because you’re teaching your brain to feel afraid of difficult emotions generally.

Well, a similar dynamic happens when you’re in the habit of being critical or judgmental of yourself for your emotions.

For example:

  • You start to feel anxious and then think to yourself Damnit, why can’t I just be strong and let this go!
  • You start to get frustrated with your kids and raise your voice, then immediately think to yourself Ugh… I’m always angry at my kids. I’m such a lousy parent…
  • Something reminds you of an old boyfriend from years ago and you start to feel sad only to then berate yourself: Why do I always live in the past. I shouldn’t feel sad anymore. I should be over this!

In all these cases, you’re essentially criticizing yourself for how you feel. And when you’re in the habit of constantly criticizing yourself for how you feel, it sends the message to your brain that it’s not okay to feel bad.

This means the next time you feel bad (sad, anxious, angry, etc) you’re also going to feel bad about feeling bad—angry about feeling sad, anxious about feeling angry, etc.

And when you compound difficult emotions like this they go from painful but manageable to overwhelming.

On the other hand, you’d be surprised how much more manageable difficult feelings are when you’re not simultaneously feeling bad about the fact that you feel bad.

Put another way…

It’s a lot easier to regulate difficult emotions when you’re not also beating yourself up for feeling them.

So, if you want to get better at emotion regulation, start to pay attention to how you react to difficult emotions. And whenever possible, practice a little self-compassion and validation instead of judgment and criticism.


All You Need to Know

Here are three tips to improve your emotion regulation skills:

  1. Don’t intellectualize your feelings
  2. Control your attention, not your thoughts
  3. Stop judging yourself for how you feel

Want to take your emotion regulation skills to the next level?

I teach a six-week course called Mood Mastery that’s all about building mental strength and resilience by cultivating a healthier relationship with your emotions. Learn more here →

9 Comments

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Thanks for the article, Nick. I practice mindfulness. Your advice seems to reflect mindfulness: “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

I loved this article, so clarifying! This might just become one of my personal goals this year, to improve my regulation of emotions. Thanks for that!

Hi, if you have bad feelings about a task you need to undertake, couldn’t method 2 (refocusing your attention) just lead to procrastination?
Also, it seems like we’re advised not to repress our emotions but also not to express them by freaking out. We’re supposed to somehow “process” them or “manage” them instead, but in practice does that usually turn into intellectualising or stealth-repressing the feelings?

Good question!

I think the answer to both your questions is actually the same: Most of the time, the best way to deal with difficult emotions is to briefly acknowledge and validate them, then refocus on what really matters.

You can process them more deeply by journalling, therapy, etc. but when you get in the habit of simply validating your emotions, you’ll often find there isn’t nearly as much need for “deeper processing” as you might have imagined.

Stunning article. Previous of yours mentioned not controlling feelings, there is no bad feelings and to not teach yourself to avoid them due to that. So I was going to ask whether we can avoid thoughts which you’ve now answered nicely. I obsess, ruminate and attempt control via a now well-established coping mode. This article was written for me as I’ve intellectualised everything relating to feelings growing up within a seriously traumatised family environment with a narcissistic borderline father. Lots of therapy but to keep intellectualising means it then doesn’t work. This article really nailed a lot of what therapists have tried to communicate to me. Maybe they didn’t do it well or I wasn’t ready to listen / understand as perpetuating one’s ego dramas becomes quite a habit one clings to as identity!

Thank you Nick, for your succinct, understandable language. I can carry your advice easily in my mental suitcase, ready for use as needed. Repeated practice leads to habits, calming myself and others around me. Thank you SO much for sharing your gift 💕

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