Mental Health Blog

Emotion Regulation for “Spirited Adults”

Posted by Jeanne James on


The classic book “Raising Your Spirited Child” was written twenty-seven years ago by Mary Sheedy Kurchinka, to provide hope and guidance to parents of children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive and energetic than the average child. Kurchinka coined the term “Spirited” when she was looking for helpful information regarding her son and came across only critical words like difficult, strong-willed, or stubborn.

That shift toward a kinder, less judgmental perspective is also needed by adults who struggle with regulating intense emotion. Adults who have difficulties with big emotion and impulsive behaviors often have internalized a message of shame and a belief they are somehow defective. Learning practical skills for emotion regulation as adults is an achievable goal. However, progress starts by feeling empowered through empathy and compassion for current struggles, combined with a willingness to take responsibility for change. Compassion is fostered when we are aware of the facts:

  • Temperament and Disposition are Biologically-Based
    • Some adults have a disposition towards negative feelings and low mood.
    • Some people also have a temperament that is “more” – intense, sensitive, active, perceptive, and persistent. These adults experience emotion at a greater intensity, more often, for a longer period of time.
  • Impulsivity has a Biological Basis - Directly Correlated to Emotional Intensity and Sensitivity
    • Regulating action is harder for some people than for others
    • It is difficult to control behavior that is linked to negative or low mood.
    • Adults who use substances or engage in risky behaviors are often trying to decrease emotional pain in an ineffective way.
  • Invalidating social environments send the message “There is something wrong with you”.
    • People who were subjected to abuse or neglect as children or are living with interpersonal violence struggle with trusting their own perceptions, feelings, and intuition about what is happening in the world.
    • It is difficult to regulate emotion effectively, set boundaries, and engage in satisfying relationships when you fundamentally don’t trust yourself.
  • Ineffective Social Environments promote Chaotic Relationships
    • Many people grew-up in families that had an interaction style that reinforced emotional arousal – for example yelling and escalating conflict because it is the only way to be seen and heard.

For many adults there is relief and release in knowing that emotional intensity, and the resulting suffering from anxiety, depression, anger, and corresponding impulsive behaviors, are not evidence of defective character.  Internalizing empathy and compassion for current struggles often becomes an empowered willingness to take responsibility for change.

This is what is practiced through the therapy modality of Dialectical Behavior Therapy.  DBT offers practical skills instruction in Mindfulness and Inner Compassion, Distress Tolerance, Emotional Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. Skills are learned and practiced in a group context, which then provides accountability for change. It’s an exciting modality for improved mental health, emotion regulation, and relationships. The DBT practice of internalizing compassion and acceptance balanced by the need for change and growth is consistent with the Christian faith and others. In Christian belief, everyone is offered compassion and grace, as they are in the present moment, and every believer is called to ever higher standards of loving our neighbor as ourselves.



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