Mastering the self-regulation dance: from impulses to choices

23. May 2023

What comes to your mind when you think of self-regulation?

Try this image: imagine a bunch of emotions and impulses having a wild party in your brain, and self-regulation is like the responsible bouncer trying to keep everything under control. It’s not as boring as it sounds, and it’s definitely not just for people with anger issues desperately trying to keep themselves from exploding.

Sure, self-regulation involves self-control, like resisting the urge to scream at that reckless driver who cut you off on the road. But it’s so much more than that. Self-regulation is like the ultimate multitasking skill that can make you the coolest manager, colleague, family member, or partner around.

What is self-regulation?
It’s like being a master conductor of your attention and behavior. You can gracefully avoid knee-jerk reactions and swiftly switch strategies when needed. It’s like becoming a zen superhero, capable of maintaining inner peace while chaos swirls around you.

How does self-regulation help in daily life?

1️⃣ It helps you become the best version of yourself
You can deal with those pesky inner experiences like frustration when your colleague rambles on, stress when your to-do list grows taller than Mount Everest, or anger when someone hits a sensitive spot with their comments about your age.
Instead of reacting impulsively to everything, you can CHOOSE to stay calm and not take things personally. You become the master of your own happiness and serenity, not relying on external circumstances to dictate your state of mind.
Let’s face it, we all want to be that calm and collected person, but in those triggering moments (= situations that bring out a out-of-proportional emotional response, either freezing completely or running with the emotion), we often fail miserably. We react in the blink of an eye and then regret it later, thinking, “Dawn, I really wanted to handle that differently.”

Everybody struggles with this. Having worked with > 20 top management leaders, the topic of wanting to become better at self-regulation has come up the most. But fear not! Self-regulation is a skill that can be learned, even in the most heated moments. And yes, I’ll share a technique soon, so keep reading!

2️⃣ You go from being compelled to having a choice
The magic ingredient of self-regulation is choice. You still have the option to unleash a mighty scream or storm out of a meeting because you’ve had enough interruptions, but now it’s a conscious choice. You’re aware of your actions and reactions. You don’t have to anymore. This independence from external circumstances is a crucial leadership skill. Let’s be real, humans are messy creatures. We say things we don’t mean and act from our lowest selves at times. Self-regulation helps us not take things personally and find empathy for others. Deep down, we all just want to be happy, even if we resort to doing weird things to achieve it.

The power of choice was discovered in the most challenging way by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. Despite enduring years of unimaginable suffering in concentration camps, he managed to stay mentally strong and even supported fellow inmates. He realized that stepping out of autopilot meant creating a space between “something happens” and “our reaction to it.” In that space, we are in control. Just as we can choose our attitudes towards things we can’t control, we can learn to self-regulate when things get heated.

Now, how can you train self-regulation?
Here’s a game-changer technique that has helped me tremendously:

Stop-Breathe-Observe Method:
STOP: When you feel triggered, when anger rises, when thoughts clash, hit the brakes. Picture a big red stop sign in your mind. This creates a sacred pause, allowing you to move to the next step.
BREATHE: Take a few deep, calming breaths. It soothes your nervous system and takes you out of that fight-or-flight mode that’s so common in triggering situations.
OBSERVE: Now, observe your inner experience. Tune into your body and locate where the emotion is residing. Instead of saying, “I am angry,” see it as, “There is anger in my body.” Feel the raw energy behind the emotion, like a thunderstorm passing through.

Oh, and here’s some more good news: meditation is like the gym for your self-regulation muscle. Every time you sit down to meditate, you practice creating distance from your thoughts, becoming a witness, and letting your breath calm you down. Research even shows that meditation increases the gray matter in your anterior cingulate cortex, the fancy self-regulation center of your brain.
Remember what my meditation teacher, Punnu Wasu, always says: “In every moment, we can be happy.” This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky concept. It’s applicable to each and every one of us. So go ahead, embrace the art of self-regulation and choose to be at peace in every moment.