Emotional Regulation Is Not Emotional Suppression

I’ve talked a few times before about emotional regulation and how it can be a struggle for autistic people.  It’s an important skill to learn and a big part of emotional maturity.  But often, NTs around us will make us feel like any display of emotion (especially negative emotions) qualifies as dysregulation.  This is another form of gaslighting.  There is a difference between emotional regulation and emotional suppression.

I think it’s the weirdest thing that some NTs will tell autistic people that we shouldn’t show our feelings because we’re “too much” or “overreacting” and then, when we’ve learned to suppress our emotions, turn around and call us unfeeling robots. 

You can feel your feelings and still be emotionally regulated. 

Read that again.

You can even show your feelings while still being emotionally regulated.

Emotional regulation means having a handle on your emotions rather than letting them overwhelm you.  If you are well-regulated, you feel the full range of human emotions, but none of them take over or incapacitate you.  And a well-regulated emotional response is in proportion to whatever is going on.

That last line is part of why autistic people can seem inherently dysregulated – we’re intense!  NTs often don’t get this because they think we’re reacting to small things; they don’t understand that what is small to them can be huge to us.  The world is intense to us, therefore our reactions are intense as well.  That’s not dysregulation, despite the fact that it can be off-putting to people.  It’s actually very much in proportion.

The key, as I’ve come to understand it, is to make sure that you are the one in control of your emotions, not the other way around.  And the only way to do that is to practice feeling your feelings.

This took me years to work out and I still have to fight to not be overwhelmed by my feelings sometimes, especially my anxiety, which can be literally paralyzing.

What I’ve figured out is that my feelings live just beneath the surface.  Scratch me and you’re going to get a burst of whatever I’m feeling at the moment, be that joy, goofiness, sadness, abandonment, love, depression, or whatever.  And sometimes, stuff just bubbles up to the surface and I need to FEEL THAT FEELING RIGHT THEN.  If I just go with it and spend a little time with the depression that pops up in the middle of an otherwise great day, it burns itself out after a bit and I can go back to having that great day.  It might take two minutes, it might take two hours, but I need to go ahead and just ride that emotional tide back to the shore where I can get settled again so that I can go on with my life.

The important part is that I don’t let that depression take over.  I feel it, without fighting it, and then I remind myself that I was having a good day before this bubbled up and I’d like to get back to enjoying it.  Kind of like in meditation where they tell you to “just notice your thoughts without judgement”.  I allow myself to feel it.  But I don’t let myself lash out at other people – that’s never ok.  Instead of going into a crying fit, yelling at people around me about how bad everything is, or blaming them, I can tell them I need a minute and excuse myself or let them know that I’m dealing with a bit of sadness that just came up and I could use some support.  Depending on who’s around me, support can make it all go more quickly.  This practice helps me not get overwhelmed by my emotions.

Here’s what emotional regulation is NOT:

Healthy emotional regulation is NOT an absence of emotion.  It’s not never showing your emotions.  It’s not always putting on a happy face in public and only crying or being angry behind closed doors.  That’s suppressing your emotions.

Emotional suppression seems to be what many NTs want from autistics.  They seem to feel that all our feelings, intense as they are, are “overreactions” or “out of control” and the only way they feel like we’re “in control” is if we don’t show any emotions at all. 

That’s unhealthy.

I spent a lot of my life holding everything in and never letting anyone see my feelings because I had been taught that if I showed any emotion, I was “taking on” or “throwing a fit”.  Parents and teachers disciplined me for it.  Romantic partners constantly told me to “calm down” whether I was upset or excited.  Because of this, I never learned to actually handle my emotions.  If you never feel them, you can’t learn to control them – it takes practice.  It took years of therapy and work for me to learn to feel my feelings.

And when I feel my feelings when they happen, without taking them out on others, it turns out that I CAN de-escalate, self-regulate, and be ok.  When I feel my feelings instead of locking them up, it turns out that they’re manageable, not monsters. 

All that suppression, all that thinking I was bad for feeling how I felt, had a lot to do with why I used to explode and get my emotional debris all over everyone around me.  I had no control because I had no experience dealing with my emotions. 

My mother grew up in a family that suppressed all negative emotions: she was constantly told to smile, to take things lightly, and never, ever show anger.  By the time I was born, she’d been through quite a bit of trauma and she was almost constantly angry – but she’d never learned how to deal with that emotion, so it came out as uncontrolled destructive rage.  We were all hurt by that.  I didn’t learn how to safely feel anger until I was in my late 30s but now I can get angry enough to protect myself and hold my boundaries without hurting others. 

Healthy emotional regulation comes from experiencing your feelings, not from shutting them down or bottling them up.  The best thing you can do to improve your regulation is to practice feeling your feelings (with professional help if you need it) and not letting them hurt others.  It can be scary, but you’re strong and you can handle it.  You are allowed to feel all of your feelings and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

A person in black clothes standing in a desert. They have a paper bag over their head with a rudimentary "frowny face" drawn on it. White and blue text on a purple background reads "Emotional Regulation is not Emotional Suppression"

Do you struggle with feeling your feelings?  Were you taught to never show emotion?  Have you found any strategies that helped with your emotional regulation?  Any good tricks from therapists?  I found CBT to be useless to me, but some DBT was helpful – do you have any recommendations that worked for you?

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  1. Bee

    April 10, 2021 at 7:49 pm

    I’m enjoying your journal. This was especially a helpful framing. One quandary to mention, that many people are alexithymic, so knowing what an emotion is can take time and work. That can be problematic for logistics, even simple contingencies. What do you think about that? Thank you.

    1. Grace

      April 11, 2021 at 10:27 am

      Alexithymia is another stumbling block, I know. I deal with that a lot myself. But part of what I’ve found works for me is to let myself feel whatever feeling comes up long enough to get an idea of what it might be (that’s also homework from my therapist). I’m not always successful, but it’s healthier than just suppressing all my feelings as I was conditioned to do for so long. I think emotional suppression comes kind of naturally to those with alexithymia because we don’t recognize our emotions well and it’s easier just to “not feel”, but that’s very unhealthy. If you don’t ever let yourself feel your feelings, you can’t learn to manage them. A good therapist has been invaluable for me as I learn better emotional regulation. I’ve also found using a wheel of emotions to be useful in learning to discern different feelings further than simply “good” and “bad”.

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