Self-regulation: Definition, examples, techniques
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
What Is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to observe, manage, and adapt our emotions and behaviors to suit the situation. As a set of skills, self-regulation includes learned behaviors such as self-awareness, stress management, impulse control, emotional intelligence, and effective socializing. These skills allow people to respond to stressful situations in ways that are in line with their values.
Self-regulation theory (SRT) proposes the idea that individuals can guide and influence their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to reach their goals. Roy Baumeister, a leading social psychologist, identified four components of self-regulation:
- Standards: Identifying values-based behaviors
- Motivation: Having a desire to meet those standards
- Monitoring: Carefully observing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that would cause us to break or fall short of these standards
- Willpower: Having the strength and ability to control the urges that would lead us to break or fall short of these standards
3 Types of Self-Regulation
- Cognitive: Observing and challenging unhelpful thought patterns
- Emotional: Observing and feeling emotions without letting them take over
- Behavioral: Choose intentional behaviors instead of reacting impulsively
Self-control and self-regulation have many aspects in common, but they are not the same. In fact, self-control is just one part of self-regulation.
Self-control focuses on our ability to control our impulses in the moment, particularly when it comes to delaying gratification or resisting temptation. It’s about avoiding undesired behaviors that interfere with our long-term goals. For example, we exert self-control when we resist the urge to yell at someone we don’t get along with, as well as when we avoid the temptation to overindulge on unhealthy foods that don’t nourish our bodies.
In contrast, self-regulation is about becoming more intentional with our thoughts, behaviors, and actions so we don’t experience these temptations or urges with the same frequency or intensity. For example, a person with self-control can get through a weekly meeting with a difficult coworker without yelling at them. However, they may still dread the meeting each week and grumble about it immediately afterward. A person who self-regulates can monitor their behavior before, during, and after the meeting to determine what is bothering them so much. They can then take steps to change the situation or their response to it so they no longer experience such intense, negative emotions on a weekly basis.
Self-regulation is a skillset that benefits both children and adults. Like all skills, it requires practice. However, over time, you should be able to see improvement in how you respond to stressful situations.
The practice of mindfulness teaches you to be present and to observe your thoughts without judgment. Mindfulness forms the basis of many therapy approaches, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). By practicing mindfulness, you can learn how to stay present in stressful situations without letting negative or extreme thoughts hijack your emotions.
Cognitive reframing, also known as cognitive reappraisal, is the act of challenging your thought patterns. By investigating your interpretation of stressful events, you can determine if those thoughts are true or false, helpful or harmful. Changing your thoughts will lead to a change in your emotions and, eventually, in your behavior.
To self-regulate, you need to set yourself up for success by practicing self-care. Simple practices, such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and setting boundaries, are crucial to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Without self-care, you won’t have the energy, willpower, or motivation to meet those standards you set for yourself.
4. Stress Management
Stress can have a destructive effect on your physical, mental, and emotional health. With stress management, you learn how to make changes in your life to protect yourself against stress and to manage its effects when it does occur.
Self-soothing techniques focus on the physical effects of stress. When your heart is racing and your palms are sweating, you can calm your body’s stress response by engaging your senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Self-soothing in this manner allows you to ground yourself in the present moment.
One self-regulation mechanism that’s already built into our bodies is the breath. By engaging in deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, you can slow your heartbeat and stabilize or even lower your blood pressure.
Children benefit immensely from self-regulation practices. As children experience big emotions and stressful situations for the first time, they have the opportunity to learn and practice self-regulation techniques that will serve them well into adulthood.
Techniques that promote self-regulation in children typically look different than those for adults. Children are still learning how to exert self-control and express both positive and negative emotions in healthy ways. You can strengthen children’s self-regulation abilities by:
- Practicing deep breathing
- Limiting environmental stimuli
- Helping them put words to feelings
- Encouraging them to use excess energy to run, dance, and play
- Allowing them to take breaks as needed
- Singing songs or reciting poems that teach lessons about how to manage feelings and urges
- Helping them prepare for potentially stressful situations (e.g., first day of school) by talking through it with them beforehand
Self-regulation helps people think and behave in ways that align with their own values. It allows people to choose how to respond in an effective manner instead of reacting instinctively (and often unhelpfully) to difficult situations.
If you’re struggling with self-regulation, it’s not your fault. Certain mental health disorders make it difficult to regulate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Children especially may find it hard to self-regulate if they’re struggling with one or more of the following:
If you or your child is struggling with self-regulation, you may want to seek professional treatment. Therapy can help strengthen your ability to regulate your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Common therapies that are effective in teaching self-regulation include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT teaches you how to identify and reshape unhelpful thoughts that may be contributing to negative emotions and behaviors. Click here to find a CBT therapist near you.
- Dialectal behavior therapy (DBT): DBT, which is grounded within the foundations of CBT, teaches skills in four general areas: core mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Click here to find a DBT therapist near you.
- Self-regulation therapy: Neuroscience shows that the more we think a certain way, the more inclined our brains are to follow that line of thinking. Self-regulation therapy helps create new pathways in the brain that promote healthier responses to stress. Click here to find a self-regulation therapist near you.
Like all skills, self-regulation develops over time with continued practice. It starts with identifying what your values are and how they inform the kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you want to shape your life. These are known as your standards.
Once you know your standards, you can start developing the motivation and willpower to meet those standards. You can also begin monitoring your current behavior to determine what causes you to fall short of or break your standards. Then, you can use self-regulation techniques to develop new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that are in line with your values.
Difficulties with self-regulation are caused by a number of factors, including mental illness. Typically, we behave in ways that are outside of our values when we lack self-awareness, impulse control, and emotional intelligence. All of these are key components of self-regulation.
The workplace is a great place to practice self-regulation. Instead of white-knuckling it through a stressful situation, you can determine what is causing your stress and find creative ways to minimize the intensity or frequency of stress at work. For example, by practicing mindfulness, you can nonjudgmentally observe any thoughts or fears you may have about a meeting with your boss. Then, you can choose to be present instead of worrying about what may or may not happen in the future at your meeting. The next time your boss calls a meeting, you may find it easier to stay present instead of becoming anxious. All of these steps represent self-regulation in action.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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