The Art of Self-Regulation – #MTtalk Roundup » Mind Tools Blog
#MTtalk Roundup: Emapthy

The Art of Self-Regulation – #MTtalk Roundup

March 5, 2019

“The battle for self-control over an intense, undesired habit consists of an endless series of skirmishes, in which our urges and our better angels clash several times each day.”

― Matthew D. Lieberman, American author and neuroscientist

Upsetting Events

I woke up with a feeling of dread. My stomach felt like it had a rock in it, and there was a burning sensation all over my body. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day.

Was I going to sit an exam, or compete in a sports event that I wasn’t prepared for? No, I was simply spending another day with Marsha – a family member who can’t self-regulate.

I had to tread on eggshells around Marsha because I never knew when she was going to blow up, sulk, or take offense. Although I tried to remain an empathic observer, after a few days it became stressful to be around her. Here’s why:

Theatrical Behavior

Making a scene over something is a choice. You can use your voice theatrically, exaggerate, use tragic gestures, and even throw in some tears for dramatic effect. Marsha excelled at all of these.

When you amplify the message in this way, you damage your credibility and reduce the impact of your message. (And no-one really feels like dealing with drama.)

Uncontrolled Curiosity

Some people have a burning desire to know all the details about your life, or about someone you both know. It’s not because they need to know, but because they want to know. They want to be the first to hear the news, and they’ll be the first to spread gossip.

If, like Marsha, you are one of these people, ask yourself why you need to be so well-informed. If your excuse is that you care, remember that you can care without knowing everything.

Seeking Attention and Sympathy

All of us have good days and bad days. A person who can self-regulate can handle themselves on a bad day, without seeking attention or making life difficult for the people around them.

Dear old Marsha just couldn’t do that. If she had a bad day, she made sure we all knew about it. Her carefully calculated attention-seeking made everybody else feel guilty for being OK. She got the attention she craved, but everyone resented her manipulative behavior.

Being “Direct”

Marsha prides herself on being “direct,” as she calls it. She says what she thinks, without filters. She has no awareness of how she comes across to other people. Or, if she does know, she doesn’t care.

Tact is a cornerstone of self-regulation. If you think about the impact that what you say might have on another person, you can choose your words and your tone of voice carefully. In short, you think before you speak.

Involving Others/Triangulation

I recently read a quote that said, “If you dislike someone, dislike them alone. Don’t recruit others to join your cause.”

Marsha likes playing people against each other, sometimes in very subtle ways. She also likes talking to a third party about a situation that bothers her, and encouraging that person to deal with it on her behalf.

Resisting the desire to recruit others to “support your cause” takes real self-regulation. This cause could be your dislike for someone. It could stem from your perception of yourself as a victim. Or, it could be a way to protect yourself against the consequences of your actions. Without self-regulating, you’re likely to only tell half the story: the half that suits you.

But, if you self-regulate, you’re able to keep quiet about other people. You can ask yourself rational, objective questions, and hold yourself to account.

The Art of Self-Regulation

Marsha’s lack of self-regulation has a negative effect on many of her relationships, as you can probably imagine. Maybe you even recognized a Marsha in your life while reading this blog!

Apart from strained relationships, other things that come to mind when discussing a lack of self-regulation include “cheating” on a diet, losing your temper, skipping the gym, or overindulging in alcohol.

The truth is, we are all guilty of lacking self-regulation in one way or another. While I might find it difficult to avoid the cookie jar, you might find it hard to stay patient when you’re explaining a process or procedure to a colleague for the third time.

During last Friday’s #MTtalk, we discussed various aspects of self-regulation. Here are the questions we asked and some of the responses:

Q1. What does “self-regulation” mean to you?

Self-regulation influences many areas of our lives. We love the honesty in your answers!

@aarum101 Self-regulation is for me, in one word, maturity (in every aspect). And it’s hard to do when you are very emotional (that’s one of my defects).

@tweetgayusri Choosing healthy food from a fatty buffet.

@MurrayAshley Self-regulate: to be able to control your reaction to a situation, irrespective of your knee-jerk emotion – also known as “easier said than done.”

Q2. What does a lack of self-regulation look like? Is it necessarily about losing your temper?

@jojacob_uk Not necessarily losing your temper. Maybe hijacked by any emotion?

@PIPability Constant confusion on priorities. Unorganized. Maintaining a constantly busy state of mind. Not getting things done. High levels of stress and panic.

Q3. Why do we hold some people more accountable than others for their self-regulation?

Judging different people differently for the same behavior can be the result of cultural beliefs and societal norms. Here’s what some of our participants had to say:

@sittingpretty61 We usually expect people in authority to demonstrate a higher level of self-restraint than the average person. Children need to develop the art of self-regulation from role models, like their parents.

@MarkC_Avgi Do we? Perhaps so… but it will depend on the position they are in. In my opinion, everyone should be held accountable for their self-regulation, but those in positions of authority, or whose actions may harm others, should be held more accountable.

Q4. What purpose does self-regulation serve, at work and in life?

@bentleyu With self-regulation there’s time to process and reflect on who we are, what we do, where we are, how we act, why we act, when to act. It allows us to contextualize feelings, behaviors, reactions, thoughts, etc., and to realize their impact.

@s_narmadhaa Knowing when to shut up can save our relationships with colleagues.

Q5. What happens when you do not self-regulate? What impact does it have on relationships?

A common theme that emerged is that a lack of self-regulation deals a major blow to trust in a relationship.

@itstamaragt When you don’t self-regulate, it can impact the longevity and quality of relationships. It can break trust and assurance between you and the other party.

@ZalkaB Some consequences are irreparable and can not be reversed. And our hastiness, impulsiveness or fiery-headedness can have a long-lasting effect and can make or break relationships, partnerships and teams.

Q6. What are the risks of over-regulation?

@Midgie_MT Possibly not showing any emotion for any situation, which might make people think you do not care.

@Limha75 Sometimes, emotion is needed. I’d hate to over-regulate if someone is telling me something sad or tragic. A great colleague recently said to me that good leaders aren’t afraid to be vulnerable.

Q7. When do you find self-regulation the most challenging to implement?

One of our regular participants, @GenePetrovLMC, shared the acronym HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. It resonated with all of us!

Q8. What self-regulation strategies work best for you?

@MikeBarzacchini Not sure if it’s purely a self-regulation strategy, but meditation practice helps me prioritize and focus.

@Yolande_MT I try to respond to things, people and situations according to my values, not my emotions.

Q9. How do you handle a situation when your normal self-regulation strategies are not working?

@carriemaslen When something is escalating and my normal self-regulation strategies are failing me, I try to leave the situation and approach it the next day.

@MicheleDD_MT I’ve learned to recognize the signs (physical and emotional) and find a way to tactfully remove myself from the situation.

Q10. How might you help someone (employee, colleague or friend) to self-regulate appropriately?

We learned that people don’t want to be told to calm down, stop, or take a breath. Some other ideas include:

@harrisonia To help someone to self-regulate appropriately, I’d ask if they want/need this kind of help; offer to be their backup accountability partner; and make a list of things that trigger them, or actions to bring to their attention.

Thanks to @SailorsBen for sharing this helpful analogy: “There’s a hill with exits on it. The trick is to recognize the hill earlier and earlier in the slope, rather than when it’s too late to stop. I’ve been slowly learning how to diffuse anger at its root, instead of at the last exit.”

To read all the tweets, take a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.

Coming Up

Regulating yourself is necessary to live a balanced life. Next time on #MTtalk, we’re going to talk about balance, and we’d like to know what you tend to neglect when you feel stressed and overwhelmed. Please vote in our Twitter poll to tell us what you think.


In the meantime, here are some resources relating to self-regulation:

Dealing With Rude Customers

8 Ways to Improve Self-Regulation

Asking for Help

Emotional Intelligence

How to Manage Defensive People

Controlling Your Emotions at Work

Working in a Public-Facing Role

Developing Self-Awareness

Helping Your People Develop Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Labor


Five Ways to Deal With Rudeness in the Workplace

How to Be Tactful

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Please note that we reserve the right to remove comments that we feel are off-topic or offensive. Required fields are marked with an asterisk (*).

View our Privacy Policy.