A woman with black hair and black dress with an open back dancing with a man with short black hair and a black suit to illustrate the dance of emotion regulation.

5 Emotion Regulation Strategies That Improve Character Development

Last weekend, my husband and I danced very poorly at our first (and maybe only?) Argentine Tango class. While we’d had a good time, despite all the stumbling, I was pretty certain another lesson would be both a waste of time and forty bucks. Then the instructor said something that blew my mind: 

“Argentine tango is a dance of the heart. First, you must connect with yourself. Then you connect with your partner. Only then can you connect with the music. Once you do, you make the music work for you, not the other way around.”

So much of this relates to our discussion on writing about emotions. First you must connect to your own. Then you connect to your characters’. Finally, you connect to the page and make your depictions work for you. To do this, you must learn emotion regulation.

Last week, I wrote about why we struggle to write about emotions. This week, I want to share some emotion regulation strategies that can help you reconnect to your heart. 

Emotion Regulation Step One: Connect with Your Highest Self

A wise, stable, powerful self resides in you—even if you’ve lost contact with it. Spending time with your wise self creates a stable foundation for this emotional work. 

For some people, establishing this connection is as easy as meditating in silence, going for a walk after having asked this part of you a question, or asking a question in your journal—something Julia Cameron advocates. If this feels like a challenge, try one of these things, then fake it until you make it, because if you trust the process, you will.

Emotion Regulation Step Two: Let Your Emotions In

Before you can regulate your emotions, you must let them inThat means being present with the sensations you experience when emotions arise, like a clenched fist, the tightening of your chest, or an urge to scream, cry, or throw your hands up and whoop for joy.

It sounds so simple, but we live in a world built for distraction, which makes being present with what’s happening inside you more difficult for everyone. Add on some shame, fear, or other people’s rules, and you can easily divorce yourself from some or all of your emotions.

If connecting to your emotions is difficult, start with benign experiences, like a feeling of contentment. As you notice this feeling spread over you, what sensations accompany it? What happens to your hands, neck, breath, or jaw? What thoughts do you have?

After you’ve explored some pleasant emotions, try to remain present with some mildly uncomfortable ones, like irritation or longing. Once that’s easy, build your tolerance with more difficult emotions.

Emotion Regulation Step Three: Build your Emotional Literacy

As you practice noting your sensations, build a vocabulary around your experiences. Last year, I wrote several posts on Brené Brown’s book, Atlas of the Heart, which can serve as a great primer. (To read them, click herehere, and here.) You can also read Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion, or check out some of the resources on her website.

If you’ve spent time in narcissistic relationships, been diagnosed with C-PTSD, or you’re so baffled by what you feel, Instagram posts by Ingrid ClaytonNicole LePera, or Dr. Ramani Durvasula could be illuminating and make you feel less alone.

Emotion Regulation Step Four: Learn to Shorten Your Refractory Period

Early in my healing journey, I believed an emotionally healthy person spent most of their time in a Zen state where little bothered them. That’s neither realistic, nor possible. 

Fully regulated humans feel everything and let those feelings flow through them so they can return to a baseline state of calm and contentment. 

The time it takes to return to your baseline is your refractory period. As you reconnect to your emotions, the most helpful thing you can do is learn strategies that shorten your refractory period. Attaching language to your experience can help you do this.

If what you’re feeling is between a three and six (emotions are difficult, but thinking is easy) you might be able to write or express a few sentences about them—even at their peak. At a seven or eight, this becomes more difficult. When you reach a nine, your amygdala hijacks your brain, making conscious thought almost impossible.

But you don’t have to remain stuck.

In preparation for this post, my colleague, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, shared a simple strategy that can bring your brain back online:

  • When you’re feeling calm, assign a color to clusters of emotions. While you can find several configurations online, a psychologist Katie worked with used the following labels:
    • Red: angry emotions
    • Green: worry emotions
    • Blue: sad emotions.
    • Yellow: happy emotions 
  • When intense emotions make language difficult, pick a color that corresponds to what you’re feeling. 
  • Say that color out loud or write about that color.

After identifying one word or color that identifies your experience, try a few of these grounding strategies:

  • Inhale deeply, then exhale through pursed lips as if you’re trying to blow up a balloon.
  • Look to the left and identify five things you see, then turn to the right, and do the same.
  • Plunge your hands or face in cold water or hold an ice cube for thirty seconds to one minute.
  • Go for a walk while listening to your favorite music.
  • Clean the house. 
  • Dance, run, or move vigorously to expel the excess energy caused by this emotion.

Emotion Regulation Step Five: Reconnect with Your Wise Self

As you return to your baseline, reconnect with your wise self by journaling, drawing, or doing anything else that helps you make sense of your experience. As you do this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What was happening just before your strong emotional experience? (What were you doing? What were you thinking/feeling?)
  • What triggered it?
  • Did part of you need something you failed to provide, or did part of you want something you wouldn’t allow yourself to have? (Example: You wanted to be heard but gave in or you wanted to honor your preference, even though you didn’t know how to ask for it.)
  • What can you do now to meet that need? (Whatever that is, do it.)
  • What have you learned from this experience?

Even if this seems rudimentary, explore these steps anyway, because the more you connect with yourself, the better you’ll be able to understand your characters—both those who are like you and those who vastly differ, which is the subject of next week’s post.

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