Hey, Adults: Let’s Have a Little Talk About Emotional Regulation

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What does it mean to be an adult?

It’s a fun question about in the (inevitable?) messy family aftermath of Christmas. Come on, admit it. You totally know what Ram Dass was talking about when he said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”

I live on the other side of the world from my family — and not without reason. Many of my friends refuse to see certain people in their family over the holidays, creating boundaries and heartache as they learn to carve out safe emotional spaces in their lives. It takes a lot of self-awareness and inner growth to break free from unhealthy family dynamics. And I don’t even have Trumpers in the family, thank God. We all agree politically, at least there’s that.

The holidays can be a really hard time for adults. You have to deal with your family and go into debt at the same time buying everyone the perfect expression of your love for them. Add in excessive sugar, baked goods, and alcohol, and it’s exhausting physically, emotionally, and mentally. I’ve become sensitive to the disruption of Circadian rhythms, and of course my clients want to wrap up big projects by the end of the year.

I have been living in Stressville. (Can I keep plugging my book by saying that I hope it’s not a one-way ticket? Yes, I think I can.)

Not everyone I know has a challenging relationship with the end-of-the-year holiday season. I also have friends with amazingly loving and fun families who make each other smile and provide support whenever someone is in need. But those families can get messy, too.

Life is messy. The older we get, often the messier it gets. Trauma has a way of coming into every life in an endless variety of ways.

So, the question is then, OK, adults: How do you handle things when life gets messy?

Remember when Marie Kondo admitted that she could no longer be tidy while raising three kids? Perfectionism is the ultimate emotional constipation. Humans are imperfect by design.

When you are overcome with emotions that are complex and difficult to process, what do you do to get yourself back to a calm center? This is called emotional regulation, and I suspect it’s at the heart of what it means to be an adult. I wrote about adulting when I turned forty, but I was just starting to feel the feels then.

Now, I live in a Spanish city where I hear a lot of this: “MIRA! MIRA! MIRA!” which, often from the mouth of babes, translates loosely as, “Please turn your eyeballs toward me, because I am so insecure as to whether or not you even love me and if you give me some positive attention, all is right in my world.” If the plea is ignored, it’s usually shortly followed by screaming or sobs.

Who witnessed a Christmas meltdown? Raise your hand.

I feel this. I sometimes regress to a plea for attention, but in a mature, type-A go-getter way. I win awards, publish books, travel around the world, and live a big life filled with love. I’ve done a lot of work to relax from within (to stop the MIRA!) and regulate my emotions (to have as little crying and acting out as possible).

I’m not always successful. We all “fall off the wagon,” right? We commit to a healthy way of living, and then we veer off course for whatever reason. I participate in a few accountability groups, and I often see and hear excuses from others. I read recently to call them “reasons” instead of “excuses.” But if you’re arguing with yourself over something you “want” to do, well, you’re arguing against success on your own terms.

I’m not always perfect with my daily healthy habits, but I’m better than if I didn’t try to do them at all. I know that I only do what I want to do. So, if I don’t do something, it’s because I just don’t prioritize it.

My friend Michael, may he rest in peace, told me once about how he wanted to date a woman who hated cigarette smoke. So, he quit the next day. I’ll never forget that. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances! Yet, his story shows that controlling your behavior — just like regulating your emotions — is mind over matter. (He returned to smoking once they broke up.)

And wow, do those habits come in handy when life starts handing you lemons. You’ll go one of two paths when the cookie crumbles: You cry like a baby, or you deal with it like an adult. I currently employ a mix of both.

Perhaps babies cry because they know how hard life is and parents say "no no everything is fine" because they've forgotten. The baby's right: There's a lot to cry about. Emotional regulation is hard.

Your ability to regulate your emotions and relax back into the feeling determines where you fall on the spectrum of adulthood. As you get older, you have to learn how to the “feel the feels” and be OK with it all —or else you suffer.

Sorry to break it to you, but I’m surely not the only one: You simply can’t drink, eat, shop, sex, scroll, drug, or video-game the bad feelings away. Well, you can, but it’s only temporary. When you stuff down your emotions, you end up with what I call emotional constipation. It feels worse. Then you have to medicate for that along with whatever was the problem in the first place.

The older you are, the more likely your emotional constipation, or so it seems. There’s just more to stuff down. So many older people can’t take a joke. If I hear one more person complain about how grammar rules are more important than people’s feelings over what pronoun they want to identify with, I’m going semicolon. And those young whippersnappers also are so soft that they can’t get poked without crying. It’s time for everyone to regulate.

Not every senior is a grump, of course. I loved the TED Radio Hour interview with Dan Buettner, the National Geographic researcher of the Blue Zones, where people live the longest. He said longest-living humans are full of joy and fun to be around. It’s not just about staying alive a long time — you also want to live a happy life along the way. You want to be emotionally fit along while also being able to avoid slip-and-falls. One way to do this is through the concept of Ikigai.

The idea is that people stay alive when they have a good reason to do so. For many people in Blue Zones, researchers discovered that even a simple garden can qualify as a raison d’être. Having something to do with yourself is part of emotional regulation.

This reminds me of the dog in my apartment complex. It barks for hours. It took me a while to realize that it was the same as shouting “MIRA! MIRA! MIRA!” That same universal cry for attention and love. Unfortunately, the dog can’t very well tend a garden. But adults can.

I have an abundance of things to do in my day. I’m never bored. Years ago, I learned about bullet journaling. That’s a system that uses pen and paper notebooks to create simple, personalized daily planners. I carried one for years (I used one like this), and my favorite section each month was a habit tracker. I drew an X-Y access with the day numbers of the month on the X and my habits on the Y. When I completed a task, I made a bullet point on my chart. I’ve been tracking habits for years, although I got rid of the paper journal this year.

Now that I’m a full-fledged adult without children, real estate, or possessions beyond what I can stuff into my trusty 65-liter backpack, I use a digital app called Habit Tracker. This list of things I want to do with myself every day encourages me to stay off social media, away from the ice cream, and other not-great activities. It’s rare that I check everything in a day because I have a big list.

When I don’t know what else to do because I’m overwhelmed with emotions, I can act on autopilot with these healthy activities. I’m more likely to lace up my shoes and take a walk along the paseo if I do that every day. I know somehow that I should call a beloved friend to talk if I make a habit of connecting every day. I will pick up my ukulele and sing a song, even if I feel bad, if that’s something I do daily.

Beyond being able to regulate my emotions, these habits help me create the life I want to live. If you think, gosh that’s a lot, then you’ve already started making excuses for why you shouldn’t be the main character in your life story. Your list can look however you want it to look. My daily habit goals include:

  • Daily intermittent fasting
  • Daily exercise
  • Estudio español
  • Meditation
  • No scrolling
  • No junk food
  • No alcohol
  • Good sleep
  • Play ukulele
  • Journal
  • Drink water and take vitamins
  • Connect with friends
  • Rest (usually a nap)
  • Seva (selfless service)
  • Be in nature
  • Make money
  • Write weekly blog post (check!)

If I do all those things every day, I don’t have time for the unhealthy stuff. I won’t have time for unhealthy thoughts. I won’t do unhealthy things. I’ll feel better. I’ll be better prepared for when the inevitable chaotic storm approaches. Because it’s coming, fellow adults: The next family holiday will be here before you know it. Will you be ready?