“No one is an island, complete in itself”, wrote John Donne. We need the others and the others need us. The emotions of the others affect us as much as our emotions affect the others. That deep emotional connection is what strengthens us, but it also makes us more vulnerable.
In fact, we may run the risk of becoming extremely dependent on the emotional support that the others give us, which deprives us of the possibility of developing our own emotional self-management tools. It is normal that from time to time we need someone to calm us down, console us or encourage us; But if that becomes the norm and we are not able 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 ahead, for example, we may feel anxious or irritated if we feel that we are not moving forward and the deadline is approaching.
In this state, sometimes our attempts to manage those emotions can be unsuccessful and end up generating more frustration. Then our partner can come in, realize that we have entered a destructive loop, and help us out of it.
Extrinsic Emotional Regulation has occurred, consisting of the process through which one person influences the emotional state of another, consciously and with a precise 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 should not be confused with empathy or simple emotional contagion, it is a different process in which take part:
1. Intentionality. Unlike emotional contagion, which occurs automatically and often without being fully aware of it, Extrinsic Emotional Regulation implies intentionality. The regulator has the objective of influencing the other person’s emotions, he is aware that he wants to change that emotional state through his actions, whether it is to encourage those who are sad, for example, or to calm those who are angry.
2. Action. We can be empathetic with a person, connect with his feelings and understand him, but that does not necessarily mean that we do something to influence his mood. In Extrinsic Emotional Regulation, on the contrary, the regulator assumes an active role in influencing the other. It can range from an advice or an alternative interpretation of the problem to a hug that gives him confidence and security.
3. Variations in positive or negative emotions. Extrinsic Emotional Regulation is not limited to improving people’s mood, encouraging them when they are down or calming them down when they are angry. This process can also decrease positive emotions or even generate negative emotions. For example, a regulator can increase our level of anxiety to help us meet a deadline or reduce our enthusiasm on a very risky project.
The 5 mistakes emotional regulators make
All of us, at some point, have acted as regulators of the emotions of the others. However, in some cases we can end up causing damage motivated by the best intentions.
1. Not realizing that this emotion is necessary. One of the main mistakes we make when trying to manage the mood of the others is not realizing that, perhaps, that emotion is necessary at that time. For example, maybe a little eustress is just what we need to finish a project on time, so if someone tries to relax us, it won’t help us much. The regulator should always carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of maintaining the emotion that he wishes to change compared to the advantages that the emotion that he wishes to establish can bring.
2. Choosing the wrong strategy. In order to influence another person’s emotional state, we must consider a strategy, which can be to encourage him to take a walk to relax or to speak to release those repressed emotions. However, if the strategy is not successful, it can cause more harm than good. For example, it has been shown that talking about a trauma as soon as it is suffered can contribute to its consolidation.
3. Expressive suppression. One of the most damaging extrinsic emotional regulation strategies is usually expressive suppression, which is to minimize the person’s problem or concerns. Phrases like “don’t worry, it’s nothing” can have the opposite effect since that person will not feel emotionally validated, on the contrary, he will feel that he must hide his emotions because they are not socially accepted.
4. Do not put yourself in the other’s place. Sometimes the best intentions move us, but we cannot shed our egocentrism to help the others. We believe that the strategies that work for us must have the same effect on the others, and they don’t. Just because we like to go to a party when we feel lonely or sad does not mean that it is the same for the others, in fact it often has the opposite effect. Therefore, if we try to manage the emotions of the others from our perspective, we will have a high probability of being iatrogenic.
5. Giving up too soon. Emotional regulation is a complex process that often takes time. We can’t transform sadness into joy in a blink of an eye, so giving up too soon after the first try is a common mistake when we try to help each other.
Do you manage your emotions or do you let the others regulate them?
We all, at some point, need help to manage our emotions. When we go through a particularly difficult time, such as a relationship breakdown, job loss, or the death of a loved one, sometimes we need someone to support and comfort us. It is normal.
However, if we come to depend almost exclusively on others to regulate our affective states, we will have a problem because that means that we are not able to identify, understand and/or regulate our emotions.
Leaving the management of our emotions in the hands of the others implies 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 ensure that we resort to it only in specific cases.
The exhaustion of emotional regulators
Extrinsic Emotional Regulation can also take its toll on people who are forced to act as emotional regulators for the others. These people must bear the weight of other people’s emotions – in addition to their own – which can lead to develop hyper-empathy syndrome.
Having to be aware of each other’s emotions to help someone manage them more assertively can be tremendously exhausting, especially since in the long run these people end up carrying responsibilities that do not correspond to them. This does not mean that we should not be emotionally available to help the others, but we must ensure that it does not become the norm.
In fact, nurturing that dependency will not be good for anyone, so if we really want to help, we must be able to accompany without invading and support without supplant.
Nozaki, Y. & Mikolajczak, M. (2020) Extrinsic emotion regulation. Emotion; 20(1): 10-15.
Nozaki, Y. (2015) Emotional competence and extrinsic emotion regulation directed toward an ostracized person. Emotion; 15(6): 763-774.
Hofmann, S. G. (2014) Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Model of Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Cognit Ther Res; 38(5): 483–492.