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Emotional Regulation: Allow or Do?

Emotional regulation involves a delicate balance between actively doing things and also allowing things to unfold naturally. It's a dance between taking charge of our emotional responses and gently letting our feelings run their course. In this blog, I'll delve into emotional regulation, exploring how the interplay of action and acceptance can lead to a more harmonious and resilient emotional life.

Hi, I'm Justin Sunseri. I am a psychotherapist, coach, and the creator of the Polyvagal Trauma Relief System. I found a comment on one of my YouTube videos with a great question tucked within its foul-mouthed presentation.

Where is this weird 'allow yourself' grammar bulls*** coming from? You don't "allow yourself" anything. That's called 'doing something'. You 'do something'. You 'act'. I've never seen a single person asking their mirror image for permission before they start crying. They just f**ing start crying. What the f*** is up with this alienating language??

This lovely comment poses something worth cognitively chewing on.

How do we emotionally regulate: should we actively make ourselves experience certain emotions, or should we allow these emotions to surface? Do we summon a feeling or do we notice what is already there? And then, do we make ourselves act on it, like cry? Or do we allow ourselves to cry?

Emotional Regulation = Allowing

I typically frame things as "allowing." I believe we allow ourselves to experience what is already inside. I don't view emotional experiences as actions we must initiate; rather, they are natural responses we should permit ourselves to experience.

I believe those emotions are already within us, whether we consciously recognize them or not. But for the emotion to be felt and acted upon, we must mindfully allow it to be present. And then, we must mindfully allow an impulse to come from the emotion, like crying.

I teach this process in Unstucking Defensive States. Learn more about it here >

The Impulse to Cry

Crying is a great example of allowing vs doing. I don't know about you, but when I feel the urge to cry, I don't actively initiate it. I feel it. I recognize it as a signal from my body, indicating a need for emotional release. And then I allow my body to do what it is prepared to.

I don't obstruct this natural process with distractions like binge-watching Netflix or substance use. I don't tell myself I'm weak and to stuff it down inside. I allow.

The body has an impulse on what to do - cry. You don't force it or summon it. You allow it.

Of course, you may not be. Instead, you may be numbing through doom-scrolling or judging yourself for needing to cry.

Actively cry

My therapy clients often tell me they were raised to think crying makes them "weak." This belief is a common cultural and familial one, passed on for generations. This belief stops the natural impulse to cry. It dismisses and disrespects the sadness, grief, and loneliness within.

We do plenty of things with our conscious mind to actively stop natural, healthy emotional expression. That is, we don't allow the emotion and the expression.

So, maybe instead of actively making yourself cry, you can actively stop saying things to yourself that shut down the process. Maybe you can actively tell yourself it's okay to cry. Maybe you can actively validate your emotion, normalize it, and permit yourself to have it.


astronaut with a flower

Polyvagal Theory and Emotional States

My thinking on the question of "allow or do" comes from my understanding of the Polyvagal Theory. If you're new to the Theory, start here. Basically, the PVT says that our bodies can exist in three autonomic states.

Polyvagal Theory Three Primary Bodily States

  1. Safety State: for social connection when safe

  2. Flight/Fight State: good for evasion and aggression when in danger

  3. Shutdown State: Marked by immobilization or collapse when in a life-threat.

The Ideal State: Safety

In the safety state, our body's defensive mechanisms are reduced, allowing us to use our resources more optimally. Our body naturally aspires to be in the safety state, as it optimizes bodily resources for "health, growth, & restoration" (Porges).

...survival mechanisms reflexively shift physiological state to support or disrupt homeostatic processes that support health, growth, and restoration. In response to threat, homeostasis is disrupted to support biobehavioural strategies of defense such as the metabolically costly fight/flight behaviours or metabolically conservative, but potentially lethal, death feigning reactions... -Porges, Autonomic state: A neurophysiological platform for feelings, emotions, and social engagement

However, our conscious actions and beliefs often impede this process.

Our bodies are compelled to self-regulate and will do so if uninterrupted. But we humans tend to do things like judge ourselves, doom-scroll, bully, obsess, or use substances. These actions or thoughts prevent natural self-regulation from happening.

The body is compelled to self-regulate. It just needs us to allow it to do so. Yes, easier said than done.


woman smiling with flowers

Allowing vs. Doing

Allowing Emotional Expression

By 'allowing', I refer to the process of letting our body's natural responses unfold without interference. This could mean stepping back from self-judgment or societal expectations that label crying a sign of weakness.

Allowing is about mindfully creating space for our emotions rather than actively trying to generate them.

Allowing our emotions requires the safety state to be active. When it's on, defensive emotional activation reduces. We become more curious about what we feel and can mindfully experience it with self-compassion.

Doing: The Active Part

While 'allowing' is key, there's also an active component. This involves purpsefull being aware of and feeling our emotions.

For those who struggle with expressing emotions like crying, it helps to notice where in the body these feelings reside. Describing these sensations – their temperature, size, or shape – can facilitate the emotional process. It helps to enhance mindfulness of your emotions, like sadness. Once more mindful, the sadness can be acted upon, like through crying.

But crying is typically not something we conjure or will with force. If the impulse to cry is there, we allow it. Or not.

The Complexity of Emotional Regulation

The journey of emotional regulation is more than just performing actions; it's about being attuned to our body's signals and needs. Our bodies "know" what they need better than our conscious minds do.

Essentially, the more we attune to our bottom-up experiences, the more self-regulation can happen. But if we stay in our heads, nothing changes.

I think there is a natural balance of allowing and doing. You can certainly do things that allow self-regulation. You can actively set up an environment that is conducive to mindfulness. You can actively notice how you feel in your body and where your emotions live. All of this doing serves to allow your body to self-regulate.

Your Thoughts and Experiences

I want to know your perspective! How do you navigate the balance between allowing and doing emotional regulation? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


 

Do you trust in your power to self-regulate?


man resting in flowery field

Your body is compelled to self-regulate, but trauma stops this process. Do you trust that you have the innate power to self-regulate, release your trauma, and live more calmly, confidently, and connected?


 

Q&A:

Q: What is the ideal bodily state for emotional regulation according to the Polyvagal Theory?

A: The ideal state for emotional regulation is the safety state, where the body's defensive mechanisms are reduced, allowing for optimal use of resources. With the safety state active, shutdown can become stillness, and flight/fight can become play or empowerment. Learn more about the Polyvagal Theory mixed states here.

Q: How should one approach the impulse to cry from the perspective of emotional regulation?

A: The impulse to cry should be approached as a natural signal from the body, indicating a need for emotional release. It's about allowing oneself to experience this emotion rather than actively initiating it.

Q: What is the difference between 'allowing' and 'doing' in the context of emotional expression?

A: 'Allowing' refers to letting the body's natural responses unfold without interference, while 'doing' involves actively being aware of and feeling emotions, and recognizing where these feelings reside in the body. Doing can lead to allowing.


 

Quotes from this blog:

"I don't view emotional experiences as actions we must initiate; rather, they are natural responses that we should permit ourselves to experience."
"I don't know about you, but when I feel the urge to cry, I don't actively initiate it. I feel it. I recognize it as a signal from my body, indicating a need for emotional release. And then I allow my body to do what it is prepared to."
"Our bodies "know" what they need better than our conscious minds do."

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