Emotional Regulation and Sundries

Hey readers!

…Brace yourselves. I have the feeling this is going to be a long one. In fact, I’m going to turn off my laptop clock so I’m not horrified until later by how early in the morning it is :). (No worries, parents, I’m sleeping! I’m very responsible. Just not at all consistent in when the 7-9 hours occur.)

(*Note: I’ve decided to go back to real names for now in response to a stated preference from some people. This may be revoked later.)

I wanted to start out by talking about emotional regulation. Carson and Christine and I were talking a while ago about feeling sad, and I mentioned that I’m generally able to control what I’m feeling to a reasonable level. I can certainly make myself more sad or more happy on command under usual circumstances, which I consider to be one of the miracles of the brain. But then Carson mentioned that I seemed to be unusually good at this. …Really? This is special and not something everyone does?

I’d never heard about this being some special ability, or even an isolated ability at all, so I floated the idea to some friends. People did that thing where they nod along, listening, but don’t already have an opinion so are just listening. It could be my presentation—for a lot of new ideas, I state thoughts declaratively but with a slight lilt, to see if anyone will correct me. It’s less awkward than asking a direct question (“do you think I have higher than average emotional regulation?”) but it does mean that people have a higher barrier to become since we’re all try to be agreeable by default.

However, last Saturday I had the delightful chance to catch up with an old Wellesley friend—Alyssa, my MIT bus buddy, emerged out of the internet ether! Moreover, she suggested dimsum and then walking by the water, which are two of my favorite outing activities that she remembered :). And Alyssa, when fed a declarative-with-lilt-prompt-on-emotional-regulation, jumped on it immediately. “Yes,” she said, “you are unusually good at it. In fact you’re reminding me a lot of another friend who also does the same thing. So there are people who think like we do!”

WELL. Two independent sources (really independent—it’s always fun when I realize I have friends whose only connection is through me) both saying this a concept and ability, and that I’m good at it. It is obviously time for analysis.

Emotional regulation is in fact something that exists in the psychology literature. (Including at Berkeley. It’s kind of amazing how many things I look up take place in the Bay Area. It could be my Google search location biases, but it’s kind of insane.) There are apparently two main forms of emotional regulation—”suppression” and “reappraisal”, the first of which involves ignoring feelings and the second reanalyzing the situation until you feel differently. I think suppression corresponds to the “bottling it up” phenomenon, or, more familiarly to how I experience it, repetitive anxiety cycles. I mostly use reappraisal, now that I have a name for it—I used to call it talking to myself.

When I was talking to Carson and Christine about this, I hypothesized that maybe the reason I had such good emotional regulation was because I needed it more than most. I’m ridiculously high-energy, but sometimes that energy is jittery because I’m worried about something. I worry about things a lot and am the opposite of chill, as I often mention, and this was worse when I was younger. As Carson then asked, I was indeed also worse at “talking myself down” when I was younger. This isn’t strong evidence that the two ideas of emotional regulation and anxiety are related—anxiety could just have been decreasing independently with time. However, it does make emotional regulation an interesting framework for something that I talk a lot about on this blog, which is analyzing feelings and controlling them.

It could be that I have good emotional regulation because I am naturally anxious. But then again, I’ve checked, and I currently am nowhere near anything behaviorally classified as “anxiety”, and I don’t know that I was when I was younger, either. On the other hand, it does seem to be a character trait that I’ve spent a long time developing, now that I reflect on it. It actually influenced a long period of my life—at least until my junior year of college—when I considered myself to be generally selfish and lacking compassion.

Tiffany was the one who convinced me out of that one—eventually, through reinforcing it over the years. She kept on telling me that I was far less selfish than I said, that I actually did care about other people. And I don’t think my level of selfishness or caring about other people has actually changed that much over the years, though I’m not sure. I just know that in high school I was told I was self-absorbed (I’m kind of constantly self-absorbed. I think that also references the introversion character trait) and then I was always told I wasn’t having proper emotional reactions to things. That—not showing the “proper” emotion reaction to things—has always been true.

I was a crier in elementary school—apparently my first grade teacher told my mother “She’s only crying once a day, now!” at a parent-teacher conference, “but it’s just stress more than anything else—put her in the corner for a few minutes and she’s fine.” (Um. Maybe I am a naturally anxious person, I’d forgotten about that story.) But I remember in middle school making a concerted effort not to, and then I pretty much stopped. From that point on I’ve thought of crying as something to do in private, with NO OTHER PEOPLE AROUND. Having people around complicated things immensely, because you couldn’t sort through anything when you had to worry about them being there and trying to do things like hug you. So when I’ve had strong emotional reactions to things, I generally keep them to myself while I process them, then go and update the world. I’m also really, really, really terrible at comforting people, because I expect them to have gone through a similar processing time before they come to me so the emotions are pretty well in check. (…Sometimes I’m writing these posts and thinking to myself—good lord, why didn’t I realize these things earlier. Frameworks are very helpful in trying to fit in existing data.)

So I wasn’t reacting properly to things. I remember when my best friend in middle school, (best friend, sat next to her on the bus every day, the one who kept me involved in non-academic activities) told me she was moving to another state. I distinctly remember being completely stunned, nodding at her and going back to my seat. She said it was the oddest reaction she’d had. Same thing throughout high school, same thing in college. Tell me something upsetting, and I’ll give you zero reaction and then go and actually understand it on my own. And on my own, I’ll move it around until it makes any sort of sense, or just ignore it if I can’t deal with it, and then I still won’t come to you with the “proper” reaction.

Thus, in Monica’s self-characterization until Tiffany worked her magic on me, I was selfish (gradually morphing to self-absorbed) and generally non-compassionate. I haven’t actually heard those things directed at me for a while. In fact, I’ve heard from a few people that I actually am compassionate, so that’s gone into my self-percept. It’s just so funny that it didn’t necessarily ever STEM from selfishness—it probably just came from emotional regulation.

And that meant that I might have developed an entire self-concept that was wrong, because people weren’t identifying the difference I was exhibiting correctly. Generally if someone tells me some negative trait about myself, if it feels at all true—like it’s capturing something that makes me different from what’s normal—I’ll hold onto it. I’ll then (I think this might be a recent development) bring it up to people until someone corrects me. If no one corrects me, that reinforces than it’s true. If people do correct me, then I can let it go. The most recent thing I’ve done this with was “being bad at talking”—specifically, explaining scientific concepts—and I recently had two people correct me and tell me that that’s actually fine. Meaning that I’m worse than average (ha, but average with the people I hang out with just keeps on moving higher) but it’s not actually a major problem. Which was a beautiful realization, because the whole circuit of “oh-crap-I’m-not-doing-this-well” / “need-to-update-self-image” / “oh-actually-this-isn’t-a-disaster-like-I-think-it-is” only took about two weeks, which is hardly enough time for a self-image update to imprint.

This says something about better strategies, I think. Letting people know what I’m insecure about has worked out for me in every situation I can think of save one or two. (…yeah, those few times. The most recent occasion I had to mark the perpetrator as “can’t trust them” because otherwise I forget when people do mean things to me. I used to have a three-checkmark system where I’d note in my head every time someone did something deliberately mean, so that I’d remember after three checkmarks that I had to start stonewalling them and stop being a friend.) By the way, if you’re going to mock me, it’d better be about how I interact or scale with other people I respect, because I don’t really accept or take to heart any other complaints. I’ll also only be strongly affected if you pick out something I feel is true. Which could take a bit of searching, because we all have these self-concepts, and they’re all wrong in some respects, but you’d have to either find something that I’m actually bad at (…and I know about most of those, they’re not surprising, and they’re usually already marked as “in progress”) or just something I usually feel bad about but isn’t actually true. Maybe those latter issues—insecurity things with no strong basis in reality—are very obvious to other people, but if they aren’t, you’d probably have to get to know me reasonably well. And I’ll stop talking to people immediately if they try to make me feel bad, except in situations where I can’t. (See above few situations). Interestingly, the few times in the past where people have made fun of me, they’ve picked the social-interaction angle, usually bringing up previous times when I’ve said I’m bad at it. Picking the cheater way, as it were, since they could have actually observed something unusual and cutting, and instead just went with the insecurity I’d already told them. Because that’s the best part about laying all of your insecurities out there—if someone doesn’t correct you, or throws it back in your face, you already feel bad about it, it’s not like it hurts any more than anything else that’s already in your negative column of self-concept. But if they correct you—if they tell you you’re not actually as bad as you think you are—that’s totally worth the few occasions that people are being stupid, because then you get to feel much better about yourself for forever.

(I wonder if this relates to how unusual I am about putting personal thoughts on a public forum? It truly doesn’t bother me—I like expressing myself in this way—but I haven’t found anyone else who enjoys doing it, and most people think of it as a sort of bravery or completely foreign concept. This openness to insecurities might be part of it. I also think I don’t really fear being made fun of as much as other people… even when people are mean, I say much worse things about myself in my head than anyone has ever said to me. We are our own best critics—isn’t that a normal thing, an adage?)

(It’s just that people who are TRYING to criticize are just so obvious about it. It’s like: here’s this thing that I think will hurt you, let me throw at you and watch your reaction. And my response is always: ooooowwwww why are you being mean. Not—oh, look at this new thing you’ve told me that cuts me deeply. No, what actually is painful is when people are giving constructive criticism. Because I always respect those people, have usually tried my best, and if I’ve messed up then that was a best effort for me and they’re picking out something I didn’t know about. That’s useful stuff though, dang useful stuff.)

Anyhow, I’ve gone off on a tangent, trying to explain the blog-difference, which I’m always trying to figure out. My point was that self-regulation seems to be a thing I’m good at, despite it throwing up all sorts of red herrings and being-different problems in the past, and people here not only accept that, but support me in it, and I’ve since decided that I’m going to try to be awesome at it. Like, I’ve already got it, it’s a natural inclination, now let’s be the BEST at it.

When I was talking to Alyssa, I asked what she uses self-regulation for. She said mostly regulating negative feelings, not really ever for being happy. And I was like: but, but, that’s the MAIN thing I use emotional regulation for, being happy. I had all sorts of explicit strategies in the past, like smiling when walking by myself when I felt unhappy (physical indications influence your emotional state, there’s research on this stuff) and making gratefulness lists, and last year I was doing things like: “I accept this emotion, but there’s no reason for it, it’s fine to feel this way, but let’s look at the moon instead.” Three weeks or so ago I got sent into an anxiety spiral the likes I haven’t seen in ages, and being that out of control spooked me a bit. I’ve gotten better at sleeping and pretty much everything else, so it was just very surprising. Also, I’ve started to go back to baseline happiness state because that’s how people work, and I REFUSE TO ACCEPT THIS. Normally, I’m just like: eh, the mind does what the mind does, it’s just the way it is. But then I think about things like the fact that I stopped biting my nails last month. After literally ten years of doing this, and being scolded and feeling shamed for it, and attempting to stop numerous times. And I just freaking did it, and someone asked me why, and I was like: “I figured it was a new place, time to change it, so I did.” What the heck. Also HPMoR, the book I’m reading, is very optimistic and “you can do anything!” attitude-y, so I’m feeling inspired. Thus I’m embarking on a mission against this hedonic treadmill concept, and the goal is going to be to maintain a baseline happiness level that is higher than anything I’ve had previously.

The thing is, I already have a pretty darn high baseline happiness level. I get excited by the weirdest things, the strangest of which is certain situations where I’m doing exercise with people or expressing that I want to do exercise—I literally watch myself get really energetic and jumpy and people are like “why” and in my head I’m like “I have actually no idea, this just happens.” And I seemed to be happier than most people around me in college or my masters—that was something one of my labmates, Lizzie, noted last year (“there’s that optimism”) perhaps by deliberate effort but also strongly innately. But I’ve never been in a situation where the environment so perfectly matches what I want to be doing. I have people around me who “get” aspects of me people have never “gotten” people, I love my work, I love my life, and I am potentially one of the happiest people ever because I’m just really, really, personally delighted with my situation. And that’s kind of fun—feels like I have a mission, like I’m achieving greater instead of just affecting me—thinking about the fact that there’s this immense potential here and that it’s something I think I can achieve. Moreover, I really like feeling happy, and it’s also (when at a certain arousal level) one of my most productive states. When I’m feeling good, I’ll ask questions I’m feeling unsure about, I’ll go up and talk to people I’ll worry about normally, and I’ll redirect the insecure thoughts as soon as they pop up.

(I’ve gotten better at the negative thoughts thing too :). You remember last year when I was having the huge “I’m-not-prepared-enough-for-this” angst? Literally this is always my worst angst—I’m very very fortunate not to have ever experienced imposter syndrome—and it’s something that still comes up a lot in my head. But I was talking to Alyssa about this and describing it, saying: “And then I feel like I’m not prepared enough,” and she said: “And then you go and fix that” and I was like: “… … yes.” And that was kind of a startling moment for me, because I do go and correct the lack of knowledge, and if that’s the worst my brain deals with, then I’m pretty good to go. Because I get the “I’m-not-smart-enough” thing occasionally, but that almost always gets immediately reframed as “well, it’s more that you just don’t know enough and now you just look stupid but it’s lack of knowledge more than anything else” because I have this strong belief that I can learn anything if I put enough time into it, and that has driven me and kept me afloat and motivated for far longer than any other of my base emotions could have. I’m actually very lucky to have that instinct, and I suspect I should allocate a lot of credit to my parents. Anyhow, over the past month I’ve noticed a noticeable decline in the “ahhh I don’t know anything I’m looking stupid” instinct. It’s that I’m comfortable with where I stand, now, in this array of new people. Which is that I know what I know, and everyone seems to be cool with that, and a lot of these people actually like explaining stuff and basically, that they’re good with my ability to listen and understand and I don’t need to try so hard. And now I know basically what domains of knowledge other people have, so they’re not suddenly surprising me with how suddenly omniscient they seem to become. Intelligence is always a concept I’ve had trouble with—interestingly, for me it seems to be mostly associated with the number of thoughts people have that I wish I’d come up with, both previously-assembled and on-the-spot thoughts—but I don’t think that it means the same thing to different people. And people seem to be fixated on it to different degrees as well. I imagine it’s something I’ll continue to work around, and all I know is that it would not be a good idea for me to take an IQ test, because I don’t like the conclusions I’d draw if it came out in either direction of the vague range where I think I am.)

So I’ve gotten better at redirecting thoughts in class, and dismissing the feeling you get when you’ve just been asked a question and your mind is blank. Mostly, it’s “no, it’s fine to feel this way, but it doesn’t mean anything, you watch you can still participate later” and various iterations until everything calms down. But I’ve been reading HPMoR (Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality) and that book has been blowing my mind, and yesterday it managed to deliver a new strategy for thinking things through and TODAY it managed to upset me enough that I thought that it was time to engage.

Here’s the strategy. Harry, in the story, is a complex character with a lot of different “people” in him. In order to have debates with himself, he divides up his “people” and has them argue with each other. I’d been thinking this was a particularly clever plot device, because it allows the reader to clearly see all of Harry’s thought processes (which are essential to the story, since he’s exhibiting rational thinking and that’s what we’re supposed to learn). However, way down in Chapter 88 or so, the author comes up with Harry talking about his own internal selves as a deliberate strategy. (The author is amazing. He uses his characters SO WELL.) Harry has a bunch of people… in fact, I’ll give you the quote; it’s all so well-written.

(Hermione has just asked Harry what he does when he has lots of thoughts pulling in different directions. This is Harry’s response.)

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 9.27.20 PM.png

And in today’s chapter or three, something terrible happened (spoiler alert: major character death) and I was upset ALL THE WAY UP THE HILL HOME. So I tried to divide myself into characters and let them duke it out in the HPMoR style. This is a first attempt, so I assume I’ll get better at it, but I had a great time with it and was so pleased it worked at all.

Productive Monica: okay STOP IT we have a blog to write after this we need to be in the correct mood. You know this, writing only works in the correct mindframe. Seriously, you’ve had like at least fifteen minutes of this, this is stupid.

Sad Monica: BUT I’M SADDDDDD. They died. They DIED.

Rational Monica: Come on, we know how to deal with this. It’s a book. Books aren’t real life.

Sad Monica: [thinking more about circumstances of death] But it’s sad, and that’s a valid thing to feel. They were an important character. Harry’s sad. I’m sad. The author did a good job.

Rational Monica: There we go, that’s the right attitude. The author did a good job. What did the author do to make it more effective?

Productive Monica: And if we’re going to go on in this vein, how can we relate this feeling to real life? Can we use it in any way? Also, this division-Monica thing is sorta working, excellent, already feeling more productive!

Sad Monica: Well, the author did a good job because now I feel sad. Awwwww, everyone’s so sad, is Harry thinking the right thing? Look at all of the people trying to help him—

Productive Monica: Dang it.

Rational Monica: Come on, you’re doing well, the author’s done a great job of setting this up, right? You’re good at analyzing fiction. Remember when that teacher told you that? Why are you so good at analyzing fiction?

Sad Monica: Because I’m good at rationalizing feelings. And I feel sad right now.

Rational Monica: Good. Let’s see if we can get anything out of that. What can we learn from the author—

Sad Monica: Oh, he did it so well, I can’t believe they died—

Productive Monica: Nope, that is not working, your idea-carrot is not working, Rational Monica. Let’s try this again. So what can we learn from feeling sad. Can we use this feeling.

Sad Monica: Well… it feels disjointed from real life, just like Harry’s feeling. Maybe I can use this sadness about people dying to think about how I’d feel if actual people I loved were dying and that can motivate some of my research questions.

Productive Monica: Yes. Tell me more about anchoring your research questions.

Sad Monica: Well, maybe I can use it as a motivation to help other people more in my research, hey, this relates to the emotional regulation stuff I was thinking about earlier, wait, because I’m sad, because they DIED oh the author did such a good job.

Productive Monica: …why.

Rational Monica: All right, let’s try this from a different angle. Sad Monica, you’re thinking a lot about the plot, which Productive Monica is annoyed by. Let’s think about the plot. This book has been mostly optimistic up to this point, yes?

Sad Monica: Yes, that’s why I’ve liked it. I don’t read sad books for a reason. I READ PREDICTABLE HAPPY BOOKS AND THIS IS NOT HAPPY.

Rational Monica: Yes. This is correct. And you are sad because someone has died.

Sad Monica: Yes, they died. And the plot has been getting darker. And Harry has not accepted the death.

Rational Monica: You know what would make you not sad? If they hadn’t died.

Sad Monica: …Yes, I guess that is true.

Rational Monica: Or even if they died gracefully.

Sad Monica: That is also true. If the author wrapped it up really well so Harry was okay with it and we learned something and it was optimistic and Harry did something amazing and everything was okay.

Rational Monica: Now, do we think the author can do this?

Sad Monica: Well, I don’t know if they can come back from the dead. I mean, Harry refuses to accept the death. And it’s sad. But this book has been optimistic up to this point, ridiculously and motivatingly so. And I bet the author believes in cryogenics, from what I know of his background.

Productive Monica: YES this is looking good

Rational Monica: So it’s possible the character’s not going to stay dead.

Sad Monica: That is possible. Or they could stay dead.

Rational Monica: But as you’ve said, you have a lot of confidence in this author. So you think it’d be wrapped up well regardless.

Sad Monica: Fitting with everything in the book so far, and the fact that people aren’t screaming on the internet about this character death, and the fact that people didn’t warn me in real life about this, I think it’s pretty much a guarantee it’s going to wrap up well.

Rational Monica: So it’s all going to be okay then.

Sad Monica: It’s all going to be okay.

Productive Monica: FINALLY. Also, I cannot believe that worked. AWESOME JOB, MONICAS. Very good work. And the somber-ish and also enthusiastic mood will always work well for the post…

In conclusion, that was a lot of circling, but it still worked and I am very pleased about it. I noticed while I was doing it that I was also trying to do a fair bit of suppression rather than re-appraisal, and re-directed it partway through to try to find more productive re-appraisal directions. (Reappraisal has been shown to work much better than suppression). I think in the future I’ll be able to use this faster and better with emotional regulation, and even use it in the way Harry / the author does, which is using it to argue through intellectual conflicts. I’ve tried for a long time to engage dialogues in my head, and had some success in writing them out, but they get too vicious when I start writing them and it’s harder to redirect them than what I can do instantaneously with thoughts. I really can’t believe this worked though, first try, and I was clearly able to assign relative voices and engage in a debate in a way that feels a lot more organized than previously. And I’m all about the organization. If I can get all of my thoughts organized and categorized and aligned nicely, I’ll be one clear talker / thinker / writer and a happy camper.

All right, that wasn’t near everything I wanted to cover, but I’m getting sleepy now and I’ll dare a look at the clock before I head in. I’ve had a great work—discussed a new project, got my fellowship application passed off on, had a REALLY fun discussion with a few friends, met up with a Cambridge friend over last weekend, went to a conference, did research, did coursework, had lots of emotions and conversations and ideas… life is so good, especially when I remember, and it’s just so amazing to be here.

Hope this was entertaining and best wishes to you all (and really feel free to write me with comments! Always looking for new directions).


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