Self-Management: How to Regulate Your Thoughts, Emotions, & Behavior
Does it sometimes seem as if you are at the mercy of your emotions? With every new situation you’re in, do your emotions dictate how you think and behave? Dealing with this can often leave us feeling powerless and frustrated.
When feelings run through us, unchecked and uncontrolled, our comfort zone is the safest place to be. But if success is desired, we must be willing to take risks and push our boundaries.
The good news is, if unregulated emotions are holding you back, there is a way to take back control. Emotional control can be gained through improving the skill of self-management.
What Is Self-Management?
Emotional control is a key part of self-management. When we are talking about controlling our emotions, it is assumed that the emotions will lead to certain behaviors and that there are initial thoughts driving the emotions.
While the goal may be to gain better control over our emotions, this isn’t going to be the main focus. The best way to develop a strong regulation of our emotions is to look at self-management as a whole.
This means developing each area that falls under its scope.
While you may not hear the term self-management too often, one term that is quite commonly used is self-control.
This is usually applied to impulses we have such as eating candy or enjoying alcoholic beverages. However, managing ourselves goes far beyond controlling our pleasure-seeking desires.
Transformingeducation.org defines self-management as the ability to regulate our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in an effective manner throughout all situations.
It is no good to have self-control over one aspect of our lives and forget the rest. To build lasting success, we must work to manage ourselves within all realms of our lives.
Self-management can be broken down into three areas, each one being a cause and effect of the others.
The first area of self-management is our thoughts.
Learning to recognize our thoughts and understand why we have them is a key aspect of self-awareness.Through this practice, we can cultivate a disconnect between ourselves and our thoughts.
While this may seem to be a strange concept, it is the only way we can work to control our thoughts.
Understanding that our thoughts are not us, rather we choose what to think, allows for a greater capability to alter our emotions and the behaviors that follow.
Think back to a time when you were really nervous or angry. Do you remember what kind of thoughts were rushing through your head?
I can go on to guess that they were not pleasant or uplifting. By consciously choosing what to think, we gain a greater chance of controlling our emotions.
Emotions are the second area of self-management.
Our thoughts are what drive emotions. We can quite literally alter the way we feel by choosing to think in a different manner.
Try this, think about a pleasant experience, what are you feeling?
Now try to think angry thoughts, pretend like you’re really mad at someone. How does your mood shift?
So you see, simply by changing our thoughts we can influence our emotions.
The third area of self-management deals with our behavior.
When we are acting in a way that is fueled by our emotions, what we do will mirror how we feel.
For example, if we are happy, we would act in a pleasant way. However, if we felt anger, we may lash out or behave in an unfriendly way.
These three areas comprise self-management, but it is not a one-way street.
Once the initial thought, emotion, and behavior patterns take place, it can become a self-perpetuating loop.
When we are feeling badly, our thoughts will then continue to be negative. Likewise, behaving in a happy way will result in more positive emotions being felt. That is why I refer to them as both causes and effects of one another.
Once this concept is understood, the act of self-regulation becomes much more manageable.
"When we are feeling badly, our thoughts will then continue to be negative. Likewise, behaving in a happy way will result in more positive emotions being felt. That is why I refer to them as both causes and effects of one another."
What Does High-Level Self-Management Look Like?
Displaying high-level self-management has many benefits.
The first one that comes to mind is emotional control. When we possess the ability to control the way we feel, a whole new world of possibilities opens up to us.
Can you imagine, about to start a big game or give a presentation, and you have the ability to control the nerves that are normally running rampant. Through certain processes, we can calm ourselves in the most unnerving situations.
That is really what struck me with self-management because I always would struggle with allowing my pre-performance nerves to get the best of me.
Before a game, my heart would race and my hands would shake. I got so caught up in trying to stop this from happening, that I took most of my attention off the game.
During games, I would fail to control the influx of thoughts that would be swarming my mind. These were not, however, positive thoughts and only worsened my doubts and fears. But, upon developing proper self-management skills, I have grown to have much better mastery over myself.
Before we can work on developing self-management, there must be a baseline of self-awareness present. Previously, I have tried to cut out the middle-man, and it simply does not work.
I went straight into attempting to regulate my anxiety and nerves, only to fall short. You see, I had no idea why I was feeling this way or where the emotions were coming from. It wasn’t until I gained a base level of awareness that I began to see improvement.
Without the proper understanding of what our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are and why we have them, regulation will not be possible. So, the first sign of high-level self-management is self-awareness.
Having the capability to pinpoint exactly what we are thinking, how it’s making us feel, and the behavior that follows is a necessary requirement. Once that is established, we can work on regulating ourselves in the manner we would like.
In the previous section, I introduced the idea that self-management can be broken down into three areas, each of which is a cause and effect of the other.
When we think about what high self-management looks like, it is best shown through each of these.
Regulating ourselves means that we must be conscious of how we think, feel, and act.
The opposite of being able to manage ourselves is running on autopilot. Maybe you have done this or know someone that has. Before I really learned about the importance of controlling the inner workings of my mind, I would say I operated mostly automatically.
Many of the reactions I had to situations were involuntary. They simply happened because of an ingrained habit and reactionary pattern I had developed. Once we learn to master each area of self-management, we will gain powerful control over our lives. Later on, we will see how that can be done, but for now, let’s take a look at what it means to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Learning to master our thoughts is an important first step because it is the area from which the other two stem. All of our emotions and behaviors started with a thought, the only question is, was it a conscious thought?
We have so many thoughts during the day, that it is almost impossible to be completely aware of all of them.
However, when we possess a high level of self-management, we understand the situations that tend to pull the most negative thinking out of us. That is why, during these times, a person who displays great self-regulation will be prepared.
Once a negative thought presents itself, such individuals are prepared with a counterattack.
People who display high levels of self-management are precise in how they go about thinking, especially in times of usual stress.
For example, there is an individual who is about to give a presentation to their coworkers. They begin to notice themselves feeling nervous and having doubts. Since this person is well versed in self-management, they first look at their thoughts.
What is noticed is a repetitive pattern of phrases that are causing negative feelings.
“I hope I don’t look foolish.” “My presentation isn’t very good.” “Why would these people want to hear me speak?”
Instead of allowing these thoughts to prevail, the individual quickly combats them with positive affirmations.
“I believe in myself.” “I am proud of my presentation.” “I am confident in my knowledge.”
So you see, simply by altering their self-talk, this person was able to effectively manage their thoughts.
Once an individual learns to manage their thought patterns more effectively, handling emotions will become easier.
There are two levels to emotional mastery.
The first is someone who has gained mastery over their thoughts, and so they can dictate how they would like to feel.
For example, if there is an individual who used to feel depressed all the time, but now feels happy and joyful in who they are, it is because they learned how to use their thoughts to regulate their emotions.
When anger, frustration, sadness, depression, or any other negative feelings come our way, they can be transformed simply through thought. Now, this is no easy task, but can be done. A person who displays high levels of self-management can do just that.
The other level of managing your emotions takes the concept a little deeper.
There are those situations that seem to bring on an onset of nerves, involuntarily. While there are thought patterns which are causing these natural reactions to occur, they are so embedded in our subconscious mind that it is very difficult to control.
Though, there are individuals who can do just that. By developing a level of mastery over their minds, they are able to remain in a neutral emotional state until they choose how to feel.
That is incredibly powerful, and also takes a tremendous amount of dedication. For us, I believe it is best to first focus on controlling our conscious thoughts, giving us the ability to determine what our emotional state will be.
Developing that type of self-regulation of emotions will have profound effects on our lives. From there, you can decide on how deep you would prefer to go.
"When anger, frustration, sadness, depression, or any other negative feelings come our way, they can be transformed simply through thought. Now, this is no easy task, but can be done."
While thoughts almost immediately influence our emotions, there is a little bit more of a delay when it comes to behavior.
Yes, the way we think and feel will drive our actions, but we have the ability, even if we are in a bad mood, to regulate what we do.
It’s not as direct as thinking negatively and then feeling negatively. With actions there is a delay.
As an angry thought begins to fill our mind, we will immediately start to feel angry as well. However, that does not mean we will then act in an angry way. We have the choice to practice self-control at this point. However, many people do not. They allow their feelings to fuel their behavior.
When we possess high levels of self-management, our actions become much more deliberate. What I mean by this is, we no longer act in a reactionary way. There is much more thought and rationale put into our behavior.
Have you heard of the term “Think before you act?” That sums up-regulating our behavior perfectly.
Not only does high self-management help us when interacting with others, but also in our own personal lives. How many of us are slaves to desires and pleasure-seeking activities? While it may not be the best action or behavior for us to partake in, we do it because it is automatic.
What self-regulation allows us to do is decide whether or not we actually want to indulge in certain activities.
There is a flip side to all of this, and that’s someone who lacks the ability to regulate themselves. These individuals seem to be impulsive, reactionary, and potentially difficult to be around. They do not think before they act. Before moving on to the steps we can take to build our self-management skills, here are some examples of what lacking in this skill looks like.
What Does A Low Level of Self-Management Look Like?
It would be easy to say, low-level self-management is the opposite of what was just described in the previous section.
While yes, this is true, it’s not always as simple as that. There are situations where someone may appear to be controlling the way they think, yet they still act in an unpredictable and sporadic manner.
Or perhaps they are reserved, which makes an onlooker believe that this person is in complete control of how they act. Such may be true, in that they are controlling their actions, but only because they are caught up with the inner turmoil going on within their minds.
Self-management, when it is lacking, is easier to see on the behavioral side since that is what the outside world perceives.
If someone appears to be unstable, one moment they’re pleasant and the next they’re flipping their lids, then, of course, we can say they lack self-management skills.
Likewise, you may be thinking that you are a pretty poised person, so you must have a high degree of self-restraint. But, the behavior side of self-management is not always black and white.
The easiest way for me to explain this is through my own experience. Up until I worked on my own self-managing skills, my thoughts and emotions were in complete control of me. However, by no means was I unstable in my behavior.
My theory is that this may have something to do with the personality type of an individual.
You see, I am introverted by nature. I am not one to call a lot of attention to myself. Whenever I would feel down, angry, or anxious the way it was handled was internal. I would sink back into my shell.
To me, this was the safest place to be, and it also fueled the negative thoughts that were managing my life. Whenever I would go into this state, overthinking started to happen.
Once in a negative loop, if the mind is not corrected it will feed on itself, continuing to spit out all sorts of terrible beliefs. That’s what I fell prey to a lot. The interesting part is, I don’t think many people, outside of my close family members, knew that I was so out of control mentally.
On the outside, everything appeared great. I always stayed in shape, I was respectful, and kept a cool temper most of the time. Now there were outbursts here and there (mostly on the baseball field), but nothing to raise alarms.
Yet, judging myself in retrospect, there was little self-management going on in terms of my thoughts and emotions. I think that this is where not having this skill can really become scary.
See, I was confused as to why I didn’t have control over my thoughts and had become incredibly frustrated at the inability to monitor how I felt. Every article I read online pointed to more exercise, healthy eating, enough sleep, and all other sorts of external solutions. That is great and all, but I was doing all that and more.
At the time I am thinking of, I was in college. I was working out twice a day, once with my baseball team and once on my own. My diet was fantastic, sticking to a typical healthy athletic nutrition plan.
I got plenty of protein, ate about six small meals a day, and made sure to include enough vegetables.
When it came to my sleep patterns, I was so religious about it that it often irritated my friends. I would be in bed around the same time every night and wake up early in the morning. I’ve never been a fan of sleeping late.
So, by all the external measures, and for the lack of a better phrase, I had my shit together. If you had asked me at the time, “Eli, are you good at managing yourself?” my response would have been, “Of course I am.”
In fact, I had a lot of pride in my self-discipline and still do.
The problematic part was self-discipline was not the issue. The true meaning of self-management, in terms of our minds, was lost on me. Well, not so much lost, just unknown.
It seemed like what I did externally was supposed to subdue what was going on internally. I had it completely backward. Instead, I should have focused on controlling my thoughts first, then seeing how each one impacted my emotions.
When dealing with a lack of self-management, our first goal should be to learn about the true nature of our thoughts.
Through understanding that we hold the power and the responsibility, steps to improve can be taken. What I would like to do now is provide you with two techniques that you can use to begin building better self-management.
How to Build Self-Management
When wanting to develop better emotional control, we shouldn’t only look at that aspect of self-management. We must become better skilled in regulating ourselves as a whole. Controlling our emotions will happen as a result of such efforts.
Once we gain control over our thoughts, then we will have a better chance of controlling the emotional response. It will prove a fruitless effort to attempt and control our emotions without first gaining mastery over thought.
In fact, our thoughts play such a crucial role in the equation, they are where the majority of our focus will be.
The first technique I will introduce heavily focuses on restructuring the way we think. The next technique will then involve a daily application you can use to better regulate yourself.
"When wanting to develop better emotional control, we shouldn’t only look at that aspect of self-management. We must become better skilled in regulating ourselves as a whole. Controlling our emotions will happen as a result of such efforts."
Cognitive restructuring sometimes referred to as cognitive reframing, is a technique derived from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). If you’re unfamiliar with CBT, it was developed by Dr. Aaron Beck in the 1960s.
Cognitive restructuring is the process within CBT, during which negative patterns of thinking are located, challenged, and altered in favor of a positive alternative.
While the term seems complex, how to perform it is actually quite simple. We can go to a therapist and receive formal cognitive behavioral therapy, but to build better self-management we can follow a simple formula to restructure our minds ourselves.
Step #1: Locate Thought Patterns
The first step in the cognitive restructuring process is to locate the thought patterns that are causing the negative feelings.
We must first find out what these patterns are before we can hope to change the way we are feeling. In order to accomplish this, there are three areas we must look into. First, we must determine when we are having negative feelings, then what we are saying to ourselves, and lastly, how we feel as a result.
Step #2: Generate Alternatives
The second step in the cognitive restructuring process is to come up with a list of alternatives for our current thought patterns.
We want to come up with an alternative way of thinking during times when we normally hold distorted ideas. There are two ways to accomplish this, creating situational alternatives and general affirmations.
Step #3: Replace Negative Thoughts with Positive Ones
At this point, we should have an understanding of when we have distorted thinking, what that thinking consists of, and a list of alternatives. It is now time to put those alternatives into practice.
The first way this can be done is by utilizing a daily practice of affirmations. Take the list of alternatives you made and come up with about five to ten positive phrases. These should all be in the present tense.
The second way is to be mindful of when you are in a situation that usually induces negative thinking. Be prepared by having the alternatives you created at the ready. The next time you are in such a situation, do not wait until the negative thoughts begin to appear, proactively start implementing your alternatives.
By focusing on restructuring our minds, we will gain better control over our thoughts and feelings. If you would like some more information on cognitive restructuring, I wrote an article on it that goes into much more detail. You can read it here.
Begin Consciously Responding
The second technique you can use to become more skilled in self-management is to begin consciously responding.
What do I mean by this?
Well, when we are controlled by a certain pattern of thinking, our responses to situations tend to be reactionary. This includes the way we think, how the situation makes us feel, and how we either speak or act in response.
But we don’t want to be controlled by a certain pattern, we want to be free to choose how to act in any given situation, right? That is where the process of consciously responding comes into play.
Since we are now aware of how we feel in specific situations, especially if cognitive restructuring has been done, there will be an understanding as to how we feel at any given time.
At that point, you have two choices: respond in the same old habitual manner you always have or take a second to think and respond the way you would truly like.
In the beginning, choosing just one activity to begin implementing this technique is best. You do not want to take on the challenge of consciously responding every second of every day. That is setting yourself up for failure. Getting to that point will come naturally if you start small.
Do this activity enough, and over time, naturally, you will become more and more in control of yourself.
"When we are controlled by a certain pattern of thinking, our responses to situations tend to be reactionary. This includes the way we think, how the situation makes us feel, and how we either speak or act in response."
Having the ability to control our emotions is an important aspect of success.
When external situations have the power to dictate how we feel, our lives become chaotic and volatile.
By focusing on improving our self-management skills we will gain control over our thoughts, the emotions they cause, and the subsequent actions that follow.
Utilizing cognitive restructuring and the habit of consciously responding will allow anyone to be on the road to better regulation over themselves.
Do you have good emotional control? What about your thoughts, do you control them or do they run your life?
I would love to hear about your experience with self-management so please leave a comment below.
I hope that this article was helpful and you can begin to use some of the techniques introduced in your daily life.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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