David Earl Johnson, LICSW

16 minute read

This is the eighth in a series of articles about emotional intelligence for personal growth.

Emotions give our experiences a sort of color, a dimension of experience very different from other senses, different from even thoughts. Yet many of us find our emotions at times more of an enemy than a friend. Our emotions serve a purpose, one that is not entirely obvious.

Most current theories of emotion share the assumption that emotions serve an adaptive function in human life. Emotions play an important role in how we appraise and prepare to act on current circumstances. There are instances when emotions seem to interfere with what we do. The simplest examples are of anxiety reactions to public speaking, climbing ladders, or spiders. ‘Emotion regulation’ is a popular way of describing a solution to this problem.

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...

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ResearchBlogging.org Gross (2002) attributes the roots of the study of emotion regulation to Freud’s early psychoanalytic theorizing about the nature of psychological defenses and Lazarus’ stress and coping tradition. He describes two forms of emotion regulation. Reappraisal involves changing how we think about a situation in order to decrease its emotional impact. Suppression involves inhibiting ongoing emotion-expressive behavior. The method of reappraisal involves reinterpreting the emotional trigger into something less provocative. Suppression involves catching the reaction after it begins and containing it’s consequential behavior.

However, this is a rather simplistic description of a complex process. The very act of suppressing the target emotion evokes more emotions. An emotional response that invites suppression might evoke embarrassment at the intensity of the reaction, fear about the consequences of inadvertent expression, and shame about not having learned from similar experiences in the past. Cognitive reappraisal is strategy that can be useful to head off a response, but is possibly even more useful as a method to review the experience after the emotion has been contained. It seems to me that there are few examples I can think of that don’t involve both strategies more or less working together.

Gross & Levenson (1993, 1997) notes that expressive suppression can lead to decreased emotion expression, but interestingly, the body seems to feel the emotion even more intensely as reflected in increased sympathetic activation. Emotional suppression reduced memory for details emotional events, while reappraisal had no effects on memory.

Reappraisal may be related to relabeling and sublimation. Relabeling involves a cognitive reassignment of meaning that changes the qualitative emotional response, perhaps even it’s valence. sublimation is the directing of emotionally based response tendencies (motivation) into constructive problem solving responses that address the situation that elicited the emotion. Relabeling may play an important role in sublimation by redirecting energy into a more productive direction, presumably making it even more directable. Relabeling a suppressed emotion and subliiminating the motivation into a constructive response allows greater adaptive potential, memory, and interpersonal functioning.

Gross (2002) argues that suppression–as a response-focused strategy– acts comparatively late in the regulation process. Thus, the emotion is already underway and thus the energy implied in the sympathic activation is no longer available to be redirected. The decreasing in expressive behavior has some side effects in terms of cognitive (impaired memory) and physiological costs (increased sympathetic activation). Suppression does not diminish negative emotions. In contrast, reappraisal theoretically takes effect before the emotion response tendencies have been triggered leading to fewer behavioral and experiential signs of emotion without increasing physiological responses or impairing memory. However, it’s hard to imagine that a person could have perceived the emotional trigger and selected an alternative interpretation without experiencing the emotion. Emotional processes is known to be much quicker than the more methodical and step by step rational process (Kahneman, 2003). I think it’s reasonable to assume some suppression is required to enable the time to reappraise, then the emotion is redirected into it’s alternative conceptual context. Since reappraisal is known to decrease emotional activation, one must assume that the energy is redirected somewhere in a way that prevents most sympathetic activation. Redirecting the energy into motivation towards a constructive solution (sublimation) seems a likely explanation. sublimation may well be regular part of the reappraisal process.

Gross and John (2003) found that the habitual use of both strategies is uncorrelated. That might be explained by a conscious or pre-conscious choice. Suppressing an emotion might be a decision distinct from brief suppression followed by reappraisal and sublimation. Perhaps suppression is used because an obvious reappraisal strategy is unavailable or the person has an underdeveloped reappraisal skill. One has to wonder what happens to the energy. Invitably, the emotional activation will be expressed cognitively. Strong activation requires an explanation. If there is none, then feelings of helplessness and anxiety can spiral into being overwhelmed quickly. Few people will have the ability to supress the emotion with denial, but anger and blame towards some external source might head off a spiraling cycle of anxiety and helplessness. One would expect that such unspoken expression of emotions to be incomplete, even unsatisfying, and create an expectation of more negative outcomes. This would appear to be a largely maladaptive strategy.

Gross and Thompson (2007) describe emotion regulation as one of four types of affect regulation. “Coping” is solely focused on decreasing negative affect across greater periods of time and multiple instances. They define mood as a global more persistent set of affect than an emotion and it’s regulation as a means to manage the experience and action tendencies it may evoke. Emotion refers to one single meaningful event. It’s regulation is focused on managing the experience and behavior tendency (motivation) it evokes evokes.

They describe five families of emotion regulation.

Situation selection involves planning to minimize any possible distracting or destructive emotions, by taking actions that make the desired outcome more likely. This is an important method used by parents during the life of a young child. A parent might recall a previous fantasy play at home with a toy doctor’s bag to explain and distract the child during a visit to the doctor.

Situation modification involves quick actions that change the situation to one in which the outcome is more favorable. Very little planning is involved, though the skill might be developed by practicing and role playing. Supportive and empathetic responses to children’s expression of emotion lead to more effective coping. Angry, denigrating, or dismissive responses undermine emotion regulation. An example might include bringing a book or activity to use during a waiting room period.

Attentional deployment involves directing one’s attention within a given situation such as distraction, concentration, leaving, refocusing. This is probably how people suppress thoughts. Trying not to think about something is usually an exercise in futility. Replacing the thought with something incompatible is pretty effective. At least some cognitive restructuring is an example of attentional deployment. For example, you can refocus on past successes in solving problems when stuck with a current one. A glass is half-full, rather than half-empty.

Cognitive change involves altering the emotional significance of the appraisal by changing the meaning or changing one’s capacity to manage the emotion. Cultural differences in socialization may play heavily on this skill, it’s flexibility and effectiveness. Deciding that someone’s inattentiveness caused them to bump into you, rather than a deliberate attempt to disrupt what you were doing would be an example of alternating the emotional significance of the event.

Response modification is the method that is used after the situation is perceived and a response is initiating. This method involves influencing the physiological, experiential, or behavior responding as directly as possible. Drugs, exercise, relaxation, alcohol, cigarettes, medication, and food have been used this way. You can also modify how the thoughts and emotions are expressed. An important consideration is the situational context impacts the meaning of how the emotion is expressed and the consequences of the expression. For example, appropriate expression is different at home than it is at the work place or even in the grocery store.

Most techniques of emotion regulation seem to assume that emotion is a distraction or a nuisance that needs to be managed or suppressed. Someone who has frequented this blog would be aware that the function of emotion is a common topic. Emotions have a purpose, otherwise we wouldn’t have them. They have served humanity for a long time, apparently quite effectively. What’s new is that we are actively second guessing their influence on our thinking.

Ayn Rand asserts unequivocally:

Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation - or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a bail and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown…

I think everyone would agree that emotions can distort our decisions if we are not aware of their impact. However, I challenge the assumption that we can reason logically. Certainly, we can structure our reasoning to be as logical as possible, but a self aware person will note that the logical conclusion is often in conflict with the personal preference.

Barrett, et al., (2001) describes a study that supports affect-as-information and emotional intelligence perspective.

According to that perspective, specific emotional states have more adaptive value than global affective states, in part, because … emotions are typically associated with a causal object, whereas global affective states are not. Identification of the source of an emotional state has important consequences. …emotion differentiation is correlated with emotion regulation.

…. Emotional intelligence is broadly defined as the ability to perceive emotions in self and other, to reflectively regulate emotions, and to access and generate emotional experiences to inform adaptation…. Those individuals with the ability to distinguish among negative emotional states and subsequently regulate their emotions may prove more “emotionally intelligent” than those who have less differentiated emotion representations. [Italics are mine.] With practice, we can learn to influence but perhaps not totally control which emotions we have and how we experience and express them. We can act early in the emotion generation process or we can aim at modifying emotional response tendencies once they have already been triggered.

The purpose of emotion is to “inform adaptation”. Emotions have evolved in the context of social relationships and serve as another avenue of exchange of information between and about people and relationships. Emotions reach beyond the logic of the situation to assess the risk in a social encounter and to communicate the nature of the relationship with the other person.

Rottenberg, J., & Gross, J. J. (2003) notes that its very difficult to operationally define ‘excessive sadness’, or any other emotional excess or disturbance because of the need to integrate a considerable amount of contextual information into research formulations. Excessive sadness about loss of a loved one is not the same as the sadness that comes from being overlooked for recognition. Defining excessive emotion seems a futile endeavor. It would be more fruitful to ask what is it about this episode of sadness appear excessive. Sobbing at work is hardly the same as doing so in the privacy of home. But observing sobbing at work, you still can’t describe the sadness as excessive without inquiring as to what the sadness was about.

Click to enlarge From Dare To Dream blog:

Our motivations are largely emotionally driven. Negative emotions push us to face and act on those things that make us most uncomfortable. Positive emotions allow us to enjoy success and give us energy to meet new challenges. But negative emotions inspire us to make changes.

Misery is perhaps the most creative force in our lives. Seldom do we make major changes in our lives without considerable emotional pain. Each negative emotion comes complete with an intuitive guide to action. Anger pushes us to stand up for ourselves and speak up when we’ve been treated with disrespect. Fear makes us hyper-vigilant to potential danger and readies us to duck or run away if needed. Sadness makes us review over and over again what we’ve lost. That ruminative search is for the knowledge to compensate for our loss [as well as reassess its meaning and purpose. Ultimately, such learning leads us with the wisdom to understand our lives from a new perspective and make our actions more adaptive.] Guilt reminds us of our responsibility in the errors we make and motivates us to work to understand our mistakes and learn how to avoid repeating them.

Emotions are made to be understood by experiencing them, by sitting with them for a time so as to make some sense of them. By trace emotions to their origins you can come to understand what they might mean for you today. That will enable you to make a reasoned decision about what should be done. As hard as it is to sit with a profoundly negative emotion, you will find that emotion an amazingly creative force for change.

Emotion regulation is learned in infancy when the child attunes with his mother. When attuned, the infant is learning a number of very useful things: (1) that expressing her feelings can bring about positive outcomes–which generates positive feelings about the self and others; (2) that she can have impact on others – which generates a dawning sense of agency or self-initiative; and (3) gradually, that particular affects elicit particular reactions– which helps her begin to differentiate and eventually name her feelings. (Fonagy el., 2002 as referenced in Wallin, 2007). The essence of mothering is providing a holding environment where empathy and devotion offer a supportive relationship for her child’s growth. The quality of maternal attention, or attunement, was a key factor in determining how infants thrived. The “good-enough mother” is a mother who is able to adequately attune to her infant’s needs and abilities despite the complex and always changing processes of growth and adaptation.

In the natural process of infant care, misattunement and reattunement occurs regularly. Within the attachment relationship, the secure mother, at an intuitive, nonconscious level, is continuously regulating the infant’s shifting arousal levels. Attachment can be defined as the dyadic regulation of emotion. And thus, emotional expression serves to stimulate a dyadic exchange within the attachment relationship that results in corrective and informative regulation. By being exposed to the primary caregiver’s fluxuating attunement, the infant learns an expanding adaptive ability to evaluate on a moment-to-moment basis stressful changes in the external environment. Over time, this exchange with his mother allows infant to form coherent responses to future stressors and prepares him for future relationships. (Dales & Jerry, 2008)

Research in psychotherapy provides us with validation with the common sense notions of what makes a good approach to relationships: acceptance, permissiveness, warmth, respect, nonjudgmentalism, honesty, genuineness, and empathy or empathic understanding. Maintaining long term relationship require similar attunement and repair reminiscent of a mother and her infant.

Other research in psychotherapy has found complex positive emtions are experienced in the aftermath of the processing of intensely painful emotion and are highly correlated with positive outcome. Such “positive emotions may not only appear as a result of successful processing of negative emotions but be an integral, and perhaps overlooked part of modulating and deepening this processing.” Presumably, such deepening and repair of attunment would enhance and deepen the relationship. Perhaps this is what is often observed when “kissing and making up” after a conflict.

For adults, as well as children, the amplification and regulation of these positive states by a caring other are critically important to the self’s ongoing development, the discovery of new capacities, and the healing of old wounds. (Russell & Fosha, 2008).

Moreover, the regulation of otherwise overwhelming emotional intensity is vital in promoting the required depth of emotional processing. Finally emotion regulation involves not only the restraint of emotion, but at times its maintenance and enhancement (i.e., down- vs. up-regulation) (Greenberg and Pascual-Leone 2006, pp 616-617).

Clearly emotion is much more complex than a problem to eliminate or at least contain. Humans by their very nature are in capable of the cultural ideal of rational thought. Emotional expression is the core of our expression in relationships and evokes a response from the other that helps refine possible responses. Effective communication cannot occur without the emotional referents that define and structure mutual expectations and possible responses. Our awareness of this process is critical to learning effective relationship communication, boundaries, and building a support network. The key to learning how to express ourselves is understanding our emotions and using them to formulate a reasonable response based on an intuitive melding of emotion and rational thought, what Marsha Linehan (1993) elloquently calls “wise mind.”


Dales, S., & Jerry, P. (2008). Attachment, Affect Regulation and Mutual Synchrony in Adult Psychotherapy. American Journal Of Psychotherapy, 62(3), 283-312.

Egloff, B., Schmukle, S. C., Burns, L. R., & Schwerdtfeger, A. (2006). Spontaneous Emotion Regulation During Evaluated Speaking Tasks: Associations with Negative Affect, Anxiety Expression, Memory, and Physiological Responding. Emotion, Egloff et al (2006), 6(3), 356-366

Barrett, L. F., Gross, J., Christensen, T. C., & Benvenuto, M. (2001). Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation. Cognition And Emotion, 15(6), 713-724. doi:10.10800269993014300023

Greenberg, L. S., & Pascual-Leone, A. (2006). Emotion in Psychotherapy: A Practice-Friendly Research Review. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, Greenberg and Pascual-Leone (2006), 62(5), 611-630.

GROSS, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences Psychophysiology, 39 DOI: 10.1017.S0048577201393198

Gross & Levenson (1993, 1997) cited in Gross, J. (Ed.). (2007) Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion Regulation: Conceptual Foundations. In Gross (2007).

Gross, J. (Ed.). (2007). Handbook of Emotion Regulation (2009 paperback ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

Kahneman, D. (2003). A Perspective on Judgment and Choice - Mapping Bounded Rationality. American Psychologist, 58(9), 697-720. doi:10.10370003-066X.58.9.697

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. Linehan 1993. New York: The Guildford Press.

Rand, A. (n.d.). Philosophy, Emotion and Reason from the Objectivist Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Retrieved November 11, 2008, from http://www.skysite.org/philo.html#link

Rottenberg, J., & Gross, J. J. (2003). When Emotion Goes Wrong: Realizing the Promise of Affective Science. Clinical Psychology: Science And Practice, 10(2), 227-232.

Russell, E., & Fosha, D. (2008). Transformational Affects and Core State in AEDP: The Emergence and Consolidation of Joy, Hope, Gratitude, and Confidence in (the Solid Goodness of) the Self. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 18(2), 167-190. doi:10.10371053-0479.18.2.167

Wallin, D. J. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: The Guildford Press.

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