Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Smile like you mean it: Emotion regulation and its consequences

Our emotional experiences weave the tale of our lives – we remember moments when we felt joy, gratitude, anger, sadness and fear, not that time when we felt oh-so-neutral. However, there are times when we try to hold back our emotions so that they don’t get the best of us, such as when we face an angry boss, an upset friend, an important doctor’s appointment, or a big exam. Research on emotion regulation, suggests that people engage in different regulation strategies when they try to deal with their emotions, and these different strategies impact their feelings, well-being and even their close relationships.

How do we regulate our emotions? James Gross suggests that different types of regulation occur at different points in the emotional experience and his research focuses on two main types of emotion regulation: reappraisal and suppression.
For example, take Jerry who is being yelled at by his boss. As Jerry sits and listens to his boss yell at him, he may start to feel anger well up inside of him. When he first realizes he is experiencing anger, he can change his emotional experience by reappraising how he views the situation. Perhaps instead of thinking about how his boss is mad at him, Jerry can focus on the interaction with his boss as an opportunity to better learn what his boss expects from him. By reappraising the situation, it no longer makes sense for him to feel anger. If, however, Jerry lets his anger get the best of him, he may find himself seething mad at his boss but unable to express himself since yelling at his boss would be very inappropriate. In this situation, Jerry must suppress any expression of anger towards his boss, despite how mad he is inside. James Gross and Oliver John (2003) found that people who tend to reappraise have better outcomes than people who tend to reappraise less. They have also found that people who tend to suppress their emotions more have worse outcomes than people who tend to suppress their emotions less.

The benefits of reappraisal
The goal of reappraisal is typically to turn bad situations (such as getting yelled at by a boss) into good ones (I can figure out what the boss really wants from me), so do people who reappraise more experience more positive emotions and less negative emotions? Indeed they do. They also express more positive and less negative emotions. And this just isn’t based on people’s own reports – their friends agree. The benefits of reappraisal extend beyond the emotion realm, people who reappraise are less depressed, more satisfied with their lives, have higher self esteem, and greater optimism and well-being; they are also seen by others as more having closer relationship and being more likeable.

The consequences of suppression
What about suppression? Do people who suppress their emotions successfully express less negative emotions? When people are told to suppress their emotions during experiments, they express fewer negative emotions, but they still report experiencing as many negative emotions as people who aren’t told to suppress. And it turns out that people who habitually suppress their emotions actually experience more negative emotions than people who suppress less. Although suppression doesn’t dampen people’s experience of negative emotions (just their expression of them) it does seem to have an adverse effect on people’s positive emotions – people who suppress more do report experiencing and expressing less positive emotions, and their friends agree. Being a suppressor is also associated with being more depressed, less satisfied with life, and having lower self esteem, optimism and well-being. People who suppress more also have less social support, avoid getting close to others, and are seen by peers as having fewer close relationships. Why is suppression so bad? Researchers suggest that it’s because suppressing your emotions makes you feel inauthentic, which leads to feeling worse about yourself and your relationships, the very thing you were trying to avoid.

What does this mean for you?
These findings suggest that reappraisal is an effective strategy for dealing with emotions that benefits both you and the people around you, while suppression is associated with much poorer outcomes. So when you find yourself in a situation where you are starting to feel upset, try to change how you think about the situation instead of waiting until you are so upset that all you can do is try to hide the anger. 

Some important caveats
Although a habitual tendency to suppress is related to worse outcomes, there may be times when suppression is an appropriate and necessary strategy. When your boss is yelling at you, you may find yourself upset before you even have time to reappraise the situation. In this case, being true to your feelings and yelling right back at your boss is probably not the best career move, and suppression may be the preferred strategy.

Another important caveat is that the research on emotion regulation and well-being is correlational, so it simply shows us that emotion regulation and well-being go together and it does not tell us whether people's regulation styles actually make them experience more or less well-being. For example, if emotion regulation did make people experience more or less well-being, it would mean that suppressing your emotions actually leads you to feel more depressed and have fewer close relationships. But, you can also imagine a different type of relationship between emotion regulation and well-being where people's well-being lead them to engage in certain types of emotion regulation. In this case, it would be that people who are more depressed and have fewer close relationships feel more of a need to suppress their emotions around others and its actually their depression that is causing them to suppress, not the other way around. Even though these findings are correlational, they still show us that reappraisal is associated with better adjustment whereas suppression is associated with worse adjustment and its likely that emotion regulation does lead to changes in well-being (when the research comes out showing this, I'll be sure to let you know).

Do you tend to reappraise or suppress? Do you have other strategies that you use to control your emotions?

The article:
Gross, J., & John, O. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (2), 348-362 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.2.348


  1. Say my initial suppressions in bad interpersonal situations tend to be charged and reactive (for example, I usually spend those kinds of uncomfortable instants trying not to cry and turn red, instead of feeling like I could possibly control my immediate thoughts and make myself feel a bit better). Could that instinct change over time if I make a conscious effort to positively reappraise the moment once I do feel in control again?

    Also, this is the best blog ever.

  2. This is a great question. I couldn’t find any research looking at emotion regulation training, but research on other types of regulation strategies (such as delay of gratification – see Anna’s recent post on this) suggests that regulation can be learned. In this way, the brain is like a muscle – if you keep practicing at something, like reappraising a situation, you can get to be really good at it and eventually you can do it without even thinking about it.

    However, you are talking about trying to reappraise once you get in control again… that is actually a little different than the emotion regulation literature which talks about reappraising when you first start to realize you are getting upset. So basically if you walk into your boss’s office and you can see that your boss is upset, you should start thinking about the situation differently from that first moment, that way you never get to the point of feeling angry. This is preferable to waiting until you are holding back tears to deal with your emotions.

    But again, I have to emphasize some caveats – there may be times when emotions catch you by surprise and expressing those emotions would be really bad (it is NOT okay to hit your boss even if they are being a jerk). In these situations, suppressing your emotions is more adaptive than letting your anger go free. Also, there may be situations that we shouldn’t try to reappraise. This is an extreme example, but if your spouse is abusive and it makes you angry, trying to reappraise the situation so that you see their abuse as a sign that they care is NOT adaptive. In these more extreme situations, its probably better to see the situation as it really is.

    And thanks for the compliment, I really hope you've learned some useful things!