A number of people expressed interest in learning more about Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, after I discussed it in general in an earlier column. So I am exploring each of the four skills of EQ individually in separate columns.

To review, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and use emotions effectively. People who know and manage their own feelings well, and who comprehend and deal effectively with other peoples’ feelings are at an advantage in any sphere of life. The four skills of EQ are Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Social Awareness, and Social Management. The skill we’ll explore today is Self-Regulation.

Self-regulation is the ability to manage our feelings so our response is appropriate to the situation.  Self-regulation rests on the foundation of self-awareness – first we notice what we are feeling, and then we can choose how to express that feeling.

Self-regulation is a key component of EQ because it enables us to keep disruptive emotions and impulses in check. When we’re stressed, anxious, or angry we can’t access our most creative and rational self. Managing our emotions involves the ability to interrupt runaway emotions and redirect attention to other priorities. We use our higher brain function to regulate the knee-jerk responses that our emotions may bring up.

When we are adept at the skill of self-regulation, we can notice our emotions and yet not be ruled by them. Self-regulation is about being able to have emotional reactions to difficult experiences without being possessed by them, so we’re not just bouncing from one reaction to another. Also, when we are taken over by emotions, as sometimes happens to everyone, self-regulation allows us to regain our equilibrium more quickly.

Self-regulation is not just about stopping unhelpful reactions. Managing our emotions effectively allows us to maintain our integrity and act in line with our values, perhaps striving to meet a standard of excellence we’ve set. By working constructively with our emotions, we pursue goals despite obstacles and setbacks, for example.

It can be challenging to manage our emotions in ways that will serve us. Something that doesn’t work is to try and suppress our emotions. No matter how hard we try, strong emotion will find a way to express itself, so it’s best for all involved if we acknowledge those emotions and choose whether and how we will respond.

Feelings are formed in relation to our thoughts, so we need to understand the thoughts that cause the emotions we feel. For example, we all have things that set us off, triggers that tend to bring-on strong feelings. If one of your triggers is seeing a parent texting while driving with their kids in the car, you have several options: you can rant to your friends, develop negative generalizations about parenting these days, or perhaps find a way to make parents more aware of the risks they are taking.

It’s important that we not judge ourselves as we explore our thoughts and the resultant feelings. We’re not bad if we think and feel something negative; bringing awareness to those thoughts allows us to choose whether to change them. This can have the very beneficial effect of increasing our comfort with diversity: we may feel fear when we see someone who doesn’t look like us, that’s natural, but we can then choose whether to treat the person in front of us as a stereotype or an individual.

Self-regulation is a vital emotional intelligence skill because it is about managing our emotions for a positive outcome, in line with our values. Once we become aware of and manage our emotions, we are able to build the other EQ skills of social awareness and social management to be more successful in our relationships.