Self Regulation

Self regulation is a key component of emotional intelligence. Learn how to manage emotions and reactions, build your emotional intelligence, and what to do if someone offers you a marshmallow.

Self regulation, or self management, is the key to our ability to manage change, or any other curve ball life throws us.

Stephen Covey emphasises that you and I have response-ability - the ability to choose our response to any situation. Managing our emotions allows us to make these choices so we can choose how we respond to any situation.

That's right. You choose the best response for the situation rather than being a slave to impulsive emotions.

And yes, the humble marshmallow played a central role in research into self regulation. More about this later, I promise.

Self Regulation and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence consists of four basic capabilities, or domains. These are:

This page focuses on self regulation - the ability to choose how we think, how we feel, and the actions we take. This is the second of the domains of emotional intelligence proposed by Daniel Goleman. Use the links above to find out about the other domains or start with a comprehensive overview of emotional intelligence.

Definition of Self Regulation

Self regulation is mostly about being able to control your emotions and responses to situations and other people.

But it's also about feeling positive emotions and expressing positive emotions to others.

Some of the abilities (also known as competencies) that are part of self management are:

  • emotional self-control – controlling impulsive emotions.
  • trustworthiness – being honest and taking action that is in line with your values.
  • flexibility – being able to adapt and work with different people in different situations.
  • optimism – the ability to see opportunities in situations and the good in other people.
  • achievement – developing your performance to meet your own standards of excellence.
  • initiative – taking action when it is necessary.

Controlling negative reactions

Sometimes it's okay to let emotions control us, especially when it comes to positive emotions.

Your excitement and joy at passing an exam, or achieving a target for the month, are appropriate expressions of emotion. But it's not great to be controlled by negative emotions such as anger, fear or frustration.

Emotional intelligence suggests that it's important to be aware of all our emotions, and once we're aware we can choose how we react and express our feelings. Self regulation is about using self awareness to keep negative reactions under control.

Try This

  • List the things that cause an impulsive emotional reaction for you - the things that sometimes make you ‘lose it’, for example, ‘I get really angry when…’.
  • Write down a strategy for each of these that you can use to prevent losing your self-control in future, for example, ‘When I realise I'm angry I can stop, breathe deeply, take a short walk, and then return’.

Would you like a marshmallow...now?

My personal feeling is that marshmallows are best left in the packet - they're not on my list of favourite sweets.

But...if you were offered a marshmallow would you take it?

Daniel Goleman refers to the marshmallow experiment in his books Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence in order to demonstrate the significance that controlling impulses can have in a lifetime.

In the experiment, started in the 1960's, a group of four year old children were offered one marshmallow to eat immediately, or two marshmallows if they could wait until the experimenter returned. Some children couldn't resist and gave in to one marshmallow while others were able to wait 15-20 minutes, and were given two marshmallows.

When the children were followed up as young adults clear differences between the two groups were noted.

Those that resisted the marshmallow as children were shown to be more intellectually skilled, more responsible and dependable, and more attentive than the group that could not resist the marshmallow. They formed better relationships and demonstrated better self control in frustrating situations.

Those who ate the first marshmallow as children tended to be more easily distracted and less dependable as adults.

They had lower intellectual abilities and struggled to deal with pressurised situations, showing a lot less self control. They continued to react impulsively to situations and couldn't delay gratification in reaching their goals.

Daniel Goleman believes this experiment shows that learning to control our impulses leads to greater success in life. There are negative personal and work related costs associated with impulsive and emotional reactions.

Critics of this experiment say the results may be different if the children were offered nicer sweets (and I agree, but only because I don't really like marshmallows!).

Managing your emotions

There are some things you can start doing to improve your self regulation. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Become more aware of your emotions (self awareness) and how you react to them.
  2. If people are critical work out how what they say can be constructive and helpful to you.
  3. Take time out: get away from a difficult situation for a short time and get some exercise, drink water, or breathe deeply.
  4. Make time to think about situations and your emotions. Think of ways you could change what you do or the way you react.
  5. Plant new thoughts: when you've identified emotions and reactions that are not useful replace them with new ones that are more positive. Then work hard and practice putting these into action.

    Emotions are infectious

    Your emotions and moods affect your self management ability. Emotions and moods affect how you feel about yourself and they also have an effect on other people.

    Have you ever noticed the effect that happy positive people have on you? The same is true of people with low moods.

    It's almost as if the mood is infectious.

    Everyone experiences negative emotions from time to time. Managing your emotions does not mean covering them up and blocking them out.

    What it does mean is becoming aware of the emotions to the point that you can choose the best way to react in a situation.

    Give yourself time to think about the emotions and choose a response, rather than reacting impulsively to the emotion.

    Managing non-verbal communication

    An important aspect of self regulation is recognising the ways in which emotions can be communicated non-verbally.

    Non-verbal communication is also known as ‘body language’ and can communicate the way you feel as powerfully, if not more powerfully, than the words you use.

    Try This

    • Ask a close friend about an interesting thing that happened to him/her. While they're talking you start acting bored (stare outside, look away, hum to yourself…). Discuss what the experience was like for both of you.

    Non-verbal communication conveys emotions and attitudes towards others more effectively than words, but it can be confusing.

    Stress management

    An important skill of self regulation is managing the effect of stress in your life.

    Some stress in our lives can be positive as it motivates us, but too much stress can have a negative influence and can result in depression and health problems.

    If you're feeling stressed it's very difficult to manage your emotions effectively. Some useful things to do to manage stress include:

    1. Breathing exercises
    2. Healthy eating and drinking
    3. Exercising frequently
    4. Sleeping for 7 to 8 hours a night
    5. Make time for fun outside of work
    6. Laugh more often
    7. Spend time alone

    Managing your work life balance will also help to manage stress.

    George Bernard Shaw is credited with saying Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

    Managing your responses and impulsive emotions is an essential part of creating yourself. This is the key to self regulation.

    Choosing how you think, how you feel, and the actions you take will change your experience of life, and the way others experience you. Reading this page on self regulation is a start. Take the next step now - find out about social awareness.



    Find out about Social Awareness: the next EI competency.

    Leave Self Regulation and return to the Emotional Intelligence overview.

    Return to the Homepage


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