The Costs of Emotion Regulation: Facing Harm as Vulnerable Individuals and Marginalized Communities
Emotion regulation is generally thought to be a good thing – both for individuals and for the people around them. Left unchecked, excess emotions can lead to risky behaviors, including violent behaviors associated with anger, or otherwise dangerous behaviors such as gambling or reckless driving which are often associated with excess positive emotion (i.e. mania). Emotions can lead to the breakdown of social relationships that are important to us, for example brought on by jealousy, or they can lead to the prolonged maintenance of relationships that are bad for us, for example stemming from a fear of being alone. They can also decrease our ability to face daily challenges by overcoming us with positive or negative feelings that can interfere with reasoning processes. And finally, it has even been suggested by academics across disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, and law, that unchecked emotions can make us unfair by tinting our moral judgments, resulting in overly harsh (anger-driven) or overly lax (empathy-driven) responses to wrongdoers.
While there are a lot of great reasons to regulate your emotions, emotion regulation can come with a cost. Emotions often manifest as an adaptive response to our surroundings, letting us know that there is something to fear, something to be angry about, and so on. They not only tell you that there is something to pay attention to, but also come with a host of bodily changes that prepare you to respond to that particular situation. For example, when something scary appears, like a bear, you feel fear, and your body prepares to run away, hide, or confront the danger (commonly described as “fight, flight, or freeze”). In other words, negative emotions can be good as long as they are an appropriate response to a given situation. Likewise, positive emotions can be bad since they can be an inappropriate response to a given situation.
Given this adaptive nature of emotions, over-regulating them can backfire in a number of ways. This is particularly true for individuals or groups of individuals who experience harm on a regular basis: it can be harder to regulate emotions and more likely to be unhelpful to regulate emotions when the emotional stressor is a perpetual stressor, like oppression, abuse, or exploitation. In this blog-post, I will expand on some research describing the costs of emotion regulation, and suggest that such costs may disproportionality affect vulnerable individuals and marginalized communities.
To narrow things down a bit, I will focus here on a particular emotion regulation strategy: cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal involves changing how you think about an emotional event in order to change how you feel about that event. For example, if you fail a test, you might tell yourself it’s not a big deal, or that you’ll do better the next time. This strategy is thought to be highly effective, and has been the focus of emotion regulation research across domains, including psychology, law, and education, for decades, making it the most commonly prescribed strategy for changing your emotions in a “healthy” way. While this strategy is among the least likely to backfire, compared for example to other emotion regulation strategies like suppression (i.e. burying your feelings) or distraction (i.e. forgetting your feelings) that more commonly lead to negative consequences, it still can still come at a cost.
A recent article titled “Reappraisal Reconsidered: A Closer Look at the Costs of an Acclaimed Emotion-Regulation Strategy” by Dr. Bret Ford of University of Toronto and Dr. Allison Troy of Franklin & Marshall College (2019) nicely summarizes much of the available research documenting the conditions under which reappraisal can backfire. While this article is not itself specifically about vulnerable individuals or marginalized communities, interestingly, much of the research they describe points to such populations as being particularly likely to suffer the costs of emotion regulation.
To start off, the authors suggest that many people are not actually able to successfully implement reappraisal because the context in which they are having the emotion is particularly challenging. For example, if you fail a test that your scholarship depended on, it may be harder to tell yourself something like “it’s not a big deal” or “I’ll just do better next time.” In these more high-stakes contexts, reappraisal can be harder to use to successfully change how you feel about an event. In fact, research has shown that routinely trying and failing to use this strategy to change your emotions can actually lead to downstream negative psychological and health outcomes. So on top of not being able to make yourself feel better in the moment, you may actually be causing yourself to feel worse in the long-run, suggesting that sometimes it can actually do more harm than good to try to reappraise.
One example to illustrate this cost of regulation, particularly for vulnerable/marginalized groups, is a study by Perez & Soto (2011) examining Latinx individuals living in a high versus low oppression situation. For this study, those individuals living in a high oppression situation reported living as a visible minority in the Unites States and perceived high racial oppression in their environments. Meanwhile, those living in a low oppression situation lived as majority members in Puerto Rico or reported perceiving less racial oppression in their environments. Researchers found that more frequent attempts to use reappraisal to reduce negative feelings were associated with greater depressive symptoms in the Latinx individuals in the high-oppression context, but not the low-oppression context. This finding suggests that reappraisal is more likely to lead to negative psychological outcomes when an individual’s situation is more challenging to begin with, thus making it potentially harder to reappraise. One way to understand this is that there’s not a great silver lining when the negative stimuli you’re dealing with is something as perpetual and systemic as racial oppression. Or as Drs. Ford and Troy put it: “oppression offers few reappraisal affordances” (p. 4, 2019).
To expand on why reappraisal could lead to greater downstream psychological consequences, like greater depressive symptoms, Drs. Ford & Troy suggest that in the case of oppression, it’s not only harder to come up with a good reinterpretation of the situation, but it’s likely also invalidating to routinely try to change a negative emotional response that occurs continuously. If a person slights you on the freeway, reappraising an anger response to the reckless driver may be helpful since it can help you focus on driving well and making it home safe. However, if you are routinely faced with injustices, then reappraising your frustration with your circumstances may just lead to greater frustration, since your emotional response is likely to reoccur so long as the injustice persists.
Aside from the potential health consequences of reappraisal for vulnerable individuals and marginalized communities, there is also the potential for reappraisal to end up promoting greater harm. In other words, when certain emotions would be useful to feel, such as anger in response to injustice or fear in response to danger, reappraising those emotions can actually lead to a lower likelihood of successfully navigating that situation. For example, research has found that people who reduce their outrage towards unfair players in an economic game ultimately end up accepting more unfair offers across the course of the game (Grecucci, Giorgetta, van’t Wout, Bonini, & Sanfey, 2013; van’t Wout, Chang, & Sanfey, 2010). In other words, those who down-regulated their anger were taken advantage of to a greater extent, and those who were behaving unfairly in the game ended up exploiting the regulating-individuals to a greater extent than the non-regulating-individuals. Similarly, individuals who reappraise their romantic partner’s aggressive behavior seem more likely to remain in the abusive relationship, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will continue to be harmed (Arriaga, Capezza, Goodfriend, & Allsop, 2018).
Of course, there’s a trade-off in either direction. Not regulating your emotions can mean you feel bad all the time, or that your emotions sometimes guide you to perform behaviors you later regret. However, over-regulating your emotions runs the risk of psychologically back-firing, making you feel worse over time, or leading to inaction in the face of ongoing harm. While this trade-off is true for all individuals, it warrants special attention in the case of vulnerable individuals and marginalized communities. It may be especially hard to change how you think about a negative situation when the negative situation keeps occurring, either because of systematic or environmental injustices, and it may be especially harmful to change negative feelings in response to such harms for individuals or groups that are routinely wronged.
Arriaga, X. B., Capezza, N. M., Goodfriend, W., & Allsop, K. E. (2018). The invisible harm of downplaying a romantic partner’s aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 275–280.
Ford, B. Q., & Troy, A. S. (2019). Reappraisal Reconsidered: A Closer Look at the Costs of an Acclaimed Emotion-Regulation Strategy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 0963721419827526.
Grecucci, A., Giorgetta, C., van’t Wout, M., Bonini, N., & Sanfey, A. G. (2013). Reappraising the ultimatum: An fMRI study of emotion regulation and decision making. Cerebral Cortex, 23, 399–410. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhs028
Perez, C. R., & Soto, J. A. (2011). Cognitive reappraisal in the context of oppression: Implications for psychologi- cal functioning. Emotion, 11, 675–680. doi:10.1037/a002 1254
van’t Wout, M., Chang, L. J., & Sanfey, A. G. (2010). The influ- ence of emotion regulation on social interactive decision- making. Emotion, 10, 815–821. doi:10.1037%2Fa0020069