Sometimes we call it affect dysregulation. It creeps around like a metaphorical tarantula, sometimes popping up—big and frightening—and always best viewed from a distance. Just like shit, emotional dysregulation happens.
In counseling and psychotherapy, we throw around jargon. It can be more or less helpful. When it’s helpful, it facilitates important communication; when it’s not, it distances us from the experiences of our clients, students, and other mental health consumers.
So what is emotional dysregulation? Here’s what Wikipedia says:
Emotional dysregulation (ED) is a term used in the mental health community to refer to an emotional response that is poorly modulated, and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response. ED may be referred to as labile mood (marked fluctuation of mood) or mood swings.
I hereby declare that definition not very helpful.
I have a better definition. Emotional dysregulation (ED) is the term of the month. Why? Because I’ve been intermittently emotionally dysregulated since November 9 and I see emotional dysregulation nearly everywhere I look.
I’ve seen many clients for whom the term emotionally dysregulated is an apt description. These clients report being frequently triggered or activated (more jargon) by specific incidents or experiences. Many of these incidents are interpersonal, but as many of us know from the recent election, they can also be political and, for many, reading about or directly experiencing social injustice is a big trigger. After being emotionally triggered, the person (you, me, or a client) is left feeling emotionally uneasy, uncomfortable, and it can be hard to regain emotional equilibrium, calm, or inner peacefulness.
What are common emotional dysregulators? These include, but are certainly not limited to: Being misunderstood, experiencing social rejection or social injustice, harassment, or bullying, or being emotionally invalidated. Consider these (sometimes well-meaning) comments: “Smile.” “What’s wrong with you?” “You’re overreacting.” “Chill.” “Cheer up.”). One time I overheard a father tell his son, “Do you think I give a shit about what you’re feeling?” Yep. If someone says that to you or you overhear someone saying it to a 10-year-old, that might trigger emotional dysregulation.
Emotional dysregulation passes. That’s the good news. But sometimes it doesn’t pass soon enough. And other times, like when I see he-who-will-not-be-named on the television screen or hear his voice on the radio, repeated re-activation or re-triggering can occur. It becomes the Ground Hog’s Day version of emotional dysregulation.
In the clinical world, emotional dysregulation is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, clinical depression, and a range of other anxiety disorders. Suicidal crises often have emotional triggers. The point: emotional dysregulation is a human universal; it occurs along a continuum.
The Fantastic Four
Emotional dysregulation usually involves one of the fantastic four “negative” emotions. These include:
To be fair, these emotions aren’t really negative. They have both negative and positive characteristics. In every case, they can be useful, sooner or later, to the person experiencing them. For example, anger is both light and energy. It can clarify values and provide motivation or inspiration. Unfortunately, the light and energy of anger is also confusing and destabilizing. It’s easy for anger to cloud cognition; it’s easy for anger to send people out on misguided behavioral missions. Funny thing, these misguided, anger-fueled missions often feel extremely self-righteous, right up until the point they don’t. Less funny thing, immediately after the punch, the flip-off, the profanity, the broken window or door or relationship or whatever—regret often follows. Ironically then, the emotional dysregulation (anger) leads to behavioral dysregulation (aggression), which leads right back to emotional dysregulation (guilt and remorse).
Dysregulation can be experienced via any of a number of dimensions. You can experience behavioral, mental, social, and spiritual dysregulation. What fun! Who designed this system where we can get so dysregulated in so many different ways? Never mind. It was probably he-who-will-not-be-named.
One of the most perplexing things about emotional dysregulation is that so very often, we do it to ourselves. We do it repeatedly. And more or less, we usually know we’re doing it. We seem to want to embrace our anger, sadness, fear, and guilt. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, that is, until we want out.
For most people, the fantastic four feel bad. They stay too long. They adversely affect relationships. They’re bad company.
There’s one best way out of emotional dysregulation. I’ll say it in a word that I’m borrowing from Alfred Adler. Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I’ll say it in another word: Empathy. Empathy for yourself and others. The kind of empathy that moves you to being interested in other people and motivated to help make our communities and the world better, safer, and more filled with justice.
Okay then. Let’s get out there and start Gemeinschaftsgefühling around. We’ve got at least four years of work ahead.
For another, less profound way out of the Fantastic Four negative emotions, check out the Three-Step Emotional Change Trick: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/09/23/the-three-step-emotional-change-trick/