2.4 Expressing & Regulating Emotions
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1. Ready

What is involved in expressing emotions?

The previous three emotional intelligence skills – recognizing, understanding and labelling emotions – are about the inner experience of emotions. The ‘E’ of RULER – expressing emotions – introduces external risk. The ‘E’ is where you take everything you learned through ‘RUL’ and ask yourself “Can I share this?”. Dr.
Marc Brackett Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.
recognizes that “E can be the scariest of the five letters” because it involves turning knowledge into action. Importantly, expressing emotion is about more than just how you show your emotion. “Being
skilled in expressing emotions Brackett, M. (2020, March 15). The Show-and-Tell of Our Feelings. Marc Brackett.
means having the right expression with the right audience, in the right place, and at the right time”. It considers the context. To understand how to best express your emotions within a certain context,
Brackett Brackett, M. (2020, March 15). The Show-and-Tell of Our Feelings. Marc Brackett.
suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • Where am I? (At home – where anything goes? At work – where I have a certain reputation I want to uphold?)
  • Who is my present company? (Friends? Loved ones? Colleagues? Acquaintances? Strangers?)
  • What’s my goal in this situation? (To connect with friends or colleagues? To show sympathy or compassion? To persuade someone to take action?)
  • Given where I am, what’s the most helpful way to show my emotions? (How much of what I’m feeling should I share, and how much should I hold back?)

Expressing emotions involves Brackett, M. (2020, March 15). The Show-and-Tell of Our Feelings. Marc Brackett.
“striking a delicate balance between being completely open and honest with [y]our feelings and keeping some in”. For example, in a fit of rage, it would likely not be helpful to let it all out by throwing a temper tantrum, screaming, crying, and kicking things. In fact, behaving in this way will probably have repercussions. However, it also would not be healthy to hold it all in, pretending that nothing happened and that everything is fine. Unsurprisingly, these two extremes often work in tandem, where bottling up emotions eventually leads to your emotions bubbling over and an intense “explosion” of emotion. Apart from considering your context,
Dr. Marc Brackett Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.
also talks about expressing emotions as being a co-skill, meaning that you can’t do it alone. “If the listener doesn’t do his or her part, it’s unlikely that anything useful will come of it”. Have you ever tried making yourself vulnerable, being open and honest about your feelings, only to be faced by a partner, friend, or family member who is constantly checking their phone, fails to make eye contact, or seems indifferent to what you are expressing? That hurts. The listener’s response, which is communicated with their words, body language, facial expressions, and engagement, largely impact your willingness and ability to express emotions.

What is involved in regulating emotions?

Let’s revisit the fit of rage: You know that it won’t be helpful to let it all out but that you also shouldn’t hold it all in. Now what? The ability to appropriately express your emotions depends on your ability to regulate emotions.
Emotion regulation Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of general psychology, 2(3), 271-299.
is defined as “the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express them” and is the final skill identified in the RULER framework. To some degree, you’ve been regulating your emotions every minute of your life since you were born. However, “you almost certainly
haven't been Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.
doing it consciously, in the most mindful ways, at the appropriate moments, with a positive outcome as your goal”. Similar to emotional expression, emotional regulation also largely depends on the people who you’re with. Co-regulation identifies the critical need for warm and supportive interactions that provide the support, coaching, and modelling needed for people to self-regulate.
Intentional co-regulation Bath, H.I. (2008). Calming together: The pathway to self-control. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 16, 4. pp. 44-46.
can involve talking in a soothing voice, supportive silence, reflective problem solving, or simply acknowledging a person’s distress, and has been used across a variety of sectors including education, parenting, and therapy.

Countless skills can be learned and tools can be used to develop emotion regulation skills. Many of these skills, such as mindful breathing and cognitive reappraisal, will be thoroughly reviewed in later lessons. For now, we focus on three emotion regulation strategies:

  1. Forward-looking strategies
    Forward-looking strategies Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.
    involve thinking about “how [you] will feel in an upcoming situation and devis[ing] a plan ahead of time to alter the emotional impact”. Forward-looking strategies require a certain degree of self-awareness to be able to predict how a situation might make you feel and what you can do to manage emotional reactions. In other words, you need to know what sets you off and what brings you joy.
  2. Attention-shifting strategies
    All
    attention-shifting strategies Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.
    “are based on the same principle – that [you] can temper the impact of an emotion by diverting [y]our attention from it”. In the moment, it may be helpful to distract yourself from a heated situation. However, attention-shifting strategies can quickly become maladaptive when they are used to avoid dealing with negative emotions or uncomfortable situations. For this reason, you will focus on teaching an attention-shifting strategy that simply involves talking to yourself in third-person rather than first-person. Using brain imaging tools,
    scientists found Moser, J. S., Dougherty, A., Mattson, W. I., Katz, B., Moran, T. P., Guevarra, D., Shablack, H., Ayduk, O., Jonides, J., Berman, M. G., & Kross, E. (2017). Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Scientific reports, 7(1), 4519.
    that participants' distress rapidly decreased (within one second) when they used third-person, rather than first-person self-talk (ex. “Lena, you are not thinking rationally” versus “I am not thinking rationally). The lead researcher, Jason Moser, suggests that talking to yourself in third person is an effective attention shifting strategy because it helps you create emotional distance and develop more empathy for yourself.
  3. The Meta-Moment
    Pioneered by Marc Brackett and his research team at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the Meta-Moment involves pausing, taking a deep breath, and visualizing your best self, before reacting or responding to a situation. Brackett outlines
    four steps to practicing the Meta Moment: Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.
    1. Sense the shift: Recognize when you are caught off-guard or you have an urge to react in a way that you might later regret. This may involve noticing physiological shifts (ex. racing heart, clenched fists) or psychological shifts (ex. jumping to conclusions, anxiety).
    2. Pause: Step back from the situation and take a deep breath.
    3. See your best self: Use mental imagery and visualization techniques to imagine your best self. Think about who you want to be, how you want to be remembered, what you want to accomplish, and how you would respond if someone you respected was watching you. The more detailed, the better.
    4. Strategize and act: Use positive coping tools, positive self-talk, and (if possible) your support networks to respond to the situation in a way that closes the gap between your “triggered” self and your best self.

Why is it important to learn how to express and regulate emotions?

Let’s start by considering the two extremes of emotional expression: Letting it all out and holding it all in:

  1. Letting it all out
    Excessive experiences of emotions such as anger have been associated with physical health problems, the most common of which is
    cardiovascular disease. Davidson, K., & Mostofsky, E. (2010). Anger expression and risk of coronary heart disease: Evidence from the Nova Scotia Health Survey. American Heart Journal, 159(2), 199–206.
    Furthermore, extreme stress in childhood is known to
    increase the risk Hall, J. (2013). Childhood Stress and Risk for Later Mental Disorder. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 84(9), e1–ag–e1.
    for later mental disorders. For younger children at school, emotional outbursts interfere with social relationships and often lead to students being
    taunted or teased Paris, J. (2019). Emotional Outbursts and Their Effects on Peer Relations in the Preschool Classroom. General Human Environmental Sciences Undergraduate Honors Theses. 14.
    for their behaviour.
  2. Holding it all in
    Emotion suppression is a cognitively demanding task that is
    known to reduce Richards, J., & Gross, J. (1999). Composure at Any Cost? The Cognitive Consequences of Emotion Suppression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(8), 1033–1044.
    an individual’s memory capacity, and
    undermine life satisfaction Nam, Y., Kim, Y., & Tam, K. (2018). Effects of Emotion Suppression on Life Satisfaction in Americans and Chinese. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49(1), 149–160.
    in Western cultures. Suppressing emotions has also been
    linked to Srivastava, S., McGonigal, K., Tamir, M., John, O., & Gross, J. (2009). The social costs of emotional suppression: a prospective study of the transition to college. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 883–897.
    lower social support, a greater sense of social distance, and lower social satisfaction, thereby suggesting that expressing emotions is central to the development of strong, supportive relationships.

Overall, the consequences associated with either extreme (letting it all out and holding it all in) demonstrate how essential appropriate emotional expression is for your physical, mental and social health. According to

James Pennebaker, Pennebaker, J. (1997). Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162–166.
of the University of Texas at Austin, appropriate emotional expression (in the form of talking or writing about emotional experiences) leads to significant cognitive and physiological changes, including better immune system functioning, lower blood pressure, enhanced mood, and increased academic performance. In fact,
it has been suggested Vail, P. L. (2009, May 15). The role of emotions in learning. Great!Schools.org.
that the emotional brain has “the power to open or close access to learning, memory, and the ability to make novel connections”. Good emotional regulation is a foundation to learning, academic performance, later life success, and strong social relationships. Children who can regulate their emotions also bounce back better from trauma or adversity. In other words, they are more resilient and have higher distress tolerance. At large, “the ability to regulate emotions is an
essential prerequisite Sousa Machado, T., & Pardal, A., (2013). Emotion Regulation & Adaptive Learning Strategies in Portuguese Adolescents: A Study with Regulation Emotion Questionnaire-2 [Conference Paper]. International Psychological Applications Conference and Trends.
for adaptive development and behaviour”.

Where can I learn more?

Marc Brackett – The Show-and-Tell of Our Feelings

Marc Brackett – What Do We Do with All These Feelings?

Supporting Emotional Regulation in Elementary School: Brain-Based Strategies and Classroom Interventions to Promote Self-Regulation

Edutopia – The Role of Emotion Co-Regulation in Discipline

Kids Helpline – Helping Kids Identify and Express Feelings (written for parents but can be used by teachers)

Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

RULER

What will students learn?
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Identify and express a variety of emotions using body language, facial expressions, and actions
  • Use forward-looking strategies to predict emotional experiences and create a self-regulation plan
  • Create emotional distance and develop empathy for themselves by engaging in third-person self-talk
  • Practice taking a meta-moment to close the gap between their “triggered” self and best self
  • Support others with expressing and regulating emotions through active listening and co-regulation techniques


References

Bath, H.I. (2008). Calming together: The pathway to self-control. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 16, 4. pp. 44-46.

Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.

Brackett, M. (2020, March 15). The Show-and-Tell of Our Feelings. Marc Brackett.

Davidson, K., & Mostofsky, E. (2010). Anger expression and risk of coronary heart disease: Evidence from the Nova Scotia Health Survey. American Heart Journal, 159(2), 199–206.

Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of general psychology, 2(3), 271-299.

Hall, J. (2013). Childhood Stress and Risk for Later Mental Disorder. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 84(9), e1–ag–e1.

Moser, J. S., Dougherty, A., Mattson, W. I., Katz, B., Moran, T. P., Guevarra, D., Shablack, H., Ayduk, O., Jonides, J., Berman, M. G., & Kross, E. (2017). Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Scientific reports, 7(1), 4519.

Murray, D.W., K. Rosanbalm, C. Chrisopoulos, & A. Hamoudi. 2015. Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress: Foundations for Understanding Self-Regulation From an Applied Developmental Perspective.

OPRE Report #2015-21. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US Department of Health and Human Services.

Nam, Y., Kim, Y., & Tam, K. (2018). Effects of Emotion Suppression on Life Satisfaction in Americans and Chinese. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49(1), 149–160.

Paris, J. (2019). Emotional Outbursts and Their Effects on Peer Relations in the Preschool Classroom. General Human Environmental Sciences Undergraduate Honors Theses. 14.

Pennebaker, J. (1997). Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162–166.

Richards, J., & Gross, J. (1999). Composure at Any Cost? The Cognitive Consequences of Emotion Suppression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(8), 1033–1044.

Sousa Machado, T., & Pardal, A., (2013). Emotion Regulation & Adaptive Learning Strategies in Portuguese Adolescents: A Study with Regulation Emotion Questionnaire-2 [Conference Paper]. International Psychological Applications Conference and Trends.

Srivastava, S., McGonigal, K., Tamir, M., John, O., & Gross, J. (2009). The social costs of emotional suppression: a prospective study of the transition to college. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 883–897.

Vail, P. L. (2009, May 15). The role of emotions in learning. Great!Schools.org.

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