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If there’s one thing most everyone has learned over the last two years, it’s that no one is completely in control of their circumstances. The only thing we can control is our response to those circumstances. Viktor Frankl, renowned psychiatrist and philosopher, made this point beautifully and succinctly when he commented on his time in a Nazi concentration camp: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
Psychologists recognize that your freedom to choose your response is part of a larger ability to “self-regulate.” Writing for the website Very Well Mind, Arlin Cuncic says that “Self-regulation can be defined in various ways. In the most basic sense, it involves controlling one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts in the pursuit of long-term goals. More specifically, emotional self-regulation refers to the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses.”
Practicing self-regulation is important for the simple fact that it is expected behavior from mature adults. On a more personal level, lack of the ability to self-regulate may indicate a lack of confidence or self-esteem. Equally important, an inability to self-regulate may hinder your ability to act in accordance with your deeply held values. That in turn may lead to general but deep unhappiness.
A good sign of a capacity to self-regulate is an ability to take a few moments before acting in response to a feeling. Fortunately, there are also effective to develop and increase your ability to self-regulate. Mindfulness is an excellent way to develop a habit of thinking before you act. “By engaging in skills such as focused breathing and gratitude,” writes Cuncic, “mindfulness enables us to put some space between ourselves and our reactions, leading to better focus and feelings of calmness and relaxation.”
Cognitive reappraisal is another good way to improve your ability to self-regulate. Cuncic says that it “involves reinterpreting a situation in order to change your emotional response to it… For example, imagine a friend did not return your calls or texts for several days. Rather than thinking that this reflected something about yourself, such as ‘my friend hates me,’ you might instead think, ‘my friend must be really busy.’ Research has shown that using cognitive reappraisal in everyday life is related to experiencing more positive and fewer negative emotions.”
The Very Well Mind article contains more in-depth insights about self-regulation, including descriptions of the qualities of self-regulators and tips for putting self-regulation into practice.