What Does it Mean to Regulate Emotions?
It’s a term frequently used by meditators, as well as here at Search Inside Yourself. It’s one of the big reasons people are drawn to meditation. It’s one of the big rewards of meditation: Meditation helps you regulate your emotions. But what does that actually mean?
It’s Not About Suppressing Emotions
Regulating emotions is not about suppressing negative emotions. Feeling negative emotions is often necessary and healthy in life. For example, if you’re feeling unsatisfied with your work, that may actually be a useful sign telling you that it’s time to look at moving on in your career. Suppressing those feeling of dissatisfaction is unhealthy in the long run.
Feelings carry valuable information that can help you make essential life decisions. Learning to regulate emotions isn’t about avoiding, suppressing emotions or not feeling emotions. Instead, it’s about learning to navigate them skillfully.
Navigating Emotions Skillfully
Learning to skillfully navigate emotions means you’re able to fully dive into emotions – even intense emotions – and still act from integrity. You act from your highest values, rather than reacting impulsively to the emotion.
For example, imagine a loving father and his son. His son has just accidentally set fire to the corner of a carpet. Naturally, the father is a little angry – but more importantly, his son could have gotten hurt. Now, the father has (at least) two ways he can react:
- He could express his anger and scold his son. His attention is more on expressing his anger than at his son’s wellbeing. This would be the unskilled way of managing his anger, as he’s lost sight of his higher values (of loving and protecting his son.)
- He could explain why what his son did was dangerous. His anger will be tempered by his love and care for his son. He’ll make sure his message is heard, but he’ll also make sure his son feels loved in the process. This is a more skillful way of managing his emotions, as he stays true to his higher values.
Meditation can help you navigate your emotions skillfully in difficult situations. In other words, you’ll be able to act from your highest values, even when dealing with charged emotions.
Letting Negative Emotions Go
Meditation can also help you let go of negative emotions faster. Both Cheng-Meng Tan and the Dalai Llama agree that it’s probably impossible to prevent specific thoughts and emotions from appearing. Instead, meditation helps you release and move on from those thoughts and feelings faster. In fact, experienced meditators can let go of emotions and thoughts almost the instant they surface.
This is, again, different than suppressing an emotion. Suppressing an emotion involves an active aversion to that emotion. You’re essentially saying “no” to that experience. Letting go, on the other hand, means having a mind that’s free from both aversion and craving. You have a peaceful mind that just witnesses the arising and passing of emotions. You allow emotions to flow in, then out, smoothly and without resistance.
To wrap up, learning to regulate emotions can impact your life in a few important ways. First of all, you learn to navigate emotions skillfully, from your highest values. You learn to let go of negative emotions faster. It’s both healthier in the long run, as well as more effective in the short term.