The Significance of Self-Regulation

By Sarah O’Brien, M.A.

Developing self-regulation, also known as effortful control, has been argued to be “at the core of becoming a well-adjusted adult” (Finkenauer, Engels, & Baumeister, 2005).

Exerting this control involves inhibiting undesirable responses and following through on favorable ones, all in the interest of promoting positive behavior.

Want a more concrete example? Think about the last time you encountered a frustrating situation, such as a delayed flight. Try to recall your internal emotional state. Exasperated? Irritated? Understandably so. How did you respond to those around you? It’s most likely that you, despite not being in high spirits, did not take out this frustration directly on others. Instead, the public setting of the airport prompted you to act in line with social norms. You regulated your impulses and behavior. The delayed plane arrived, you boarded, and the situation, however aggravating, was eventually resolved.

As we age, the self-regulatory demands placed on us increase, and we transition from low to high levels of required personal accountability.

While this increase appears exponential, emotional and social competence adapt accordingly. A task involving effortful control and delayed gratification, for example, may overwhelm a preschool child. Conversely, an elementary school student may perform the task with ease, given the corresponding gains made in emotional and cognitive capacities. As an adult, though expectations — and the stakes — may be higher, so too is the availability of appropriate cognitive and behavioral strategies.

Regulating your emotions enables you to adjust your behavior. Recall the delayed flight scenario. Despite your frustration, you reigned in unwanted impulses to wait out the delay, board the plane after its untimely arrival, and depart.

Could this ability to regulate your emotional state hint at underlying resilience? Perhaps, some researchers argue (Beal et al., 2013). Individuals who experience greater emotional variability in social settings may understandably feel higher levels of stress, but are also expected to demonstrate greater resiliency, given these “effortful acts of emotional regulation” (p. 569). Although this is not always the case, the notion that we are equipped to handle emotionally challenging situations is reassuring, and can help make navigating them more manageable.

At Georgetown Psychology Associates, we offer a range of services to effectively support and foster self-regulation. Whether you are interested in scheduling therapy sessions for a clinical concern, identifying areas of difficulty with a comprehensive evaluation, or attending individual executive functioning* support sessions, contact us at (202) 333-6251 to learn more.

*The term executive functioning (EF) refers to a set of mental processes related to attention, planning, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility.