Emotional independence is one of the core concepts in the Multilevel Emotion Regulation Theory (MERT) developed by Simone de Hoogh.
Emotional independence is about being independent of others in how we feel, think or act. It is about feeling in charge of our emotional reactions, feelings and actions and our stress responses. Having emotional independence helps us to grow awareness of our ability to handle a given situation in the moment, are we feeling calm and centred, for instance, or upset and triggered.
It helps us to have a menu of tools to strengthen our baseline – our energy level and emotional resilience – and grow awareness of our baseline level, as that influences our ability to be emotionally independent.
If we are aware of where we are we can assess our baseline and make an informed decision to handle something right now – do we have the excess energy to give to the situation as well as the energy we need to be able to cope with what life might throw at us. In other words, are we emotionally in a position to tackle external challenges head on, or would we be better off postponing any action and prioritising our baseline.
There might be things that are in the way of becoming more emotional independent. We all have stress responses and involuntary mechanisms – behaviours that we revert to when stressed – in relation to how we emotionally connect with others and ourselves. It can be really helpful to explore these and work on our awareness of not helpful thoughts, feelings and actions – and tackle them with the awareness mantra.
There might be practical roadblocks, for example you might not have any time to yourself, or have financial worries, or you are ill or you don’t have any energy. In which case you may be better off reading our blog on low-key self care, which is aimed at helping you restore your baseline.
We build emotional independence when we focus on taking good care of ourselves and structurally improve our baseline, giving when we have the energy and engaging only when we have emotional resilience. By doing this we are in a much better position to support others – we can’t feel more compassionate to others then we feel towards ourselves.
If, through self awareness, we are aware we feel lousy we are in a much better position to try not to take it out on others. And even if we do, we can use the situation as a learning experience by applying the awareness mantra, and by extension raising our baseline.
I remember one time when my children were young feeling so overwhelmed by the constant need of my daughter to talk, that I felt didn’t have one single second to think my own thoughts, I locked myself in the bedroom and said to the children “I have to meditate now, otherwise I can’t trust how I am going to behave”. I meditated for maybe a few minutes while the children were continuously shouting and kicking the door of my bedroom. I completely felt out of my depth – very guilty and full of shame, “I should be able to deal with a normal family situation,” I thought – self criticism that just served to drain my energy level and emotional resilience even further. I wish I had known at the time what I know now, and certainly about the 4-7-8 breathing technique, which is a very powerful calming strategy and only takes a minute.
What I mostly did was what we mums do, prioritise the children over myself, with dire consequences. As in my example, my baseline was low and I escalated: I felt really desperate, the children felt totally unsafe and couldn’t cope with my inability to take better care of myself, and we were all in the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload.
If we have emotional overexcitability (OE) and had a challenging childhood, there is a good chance we have developed a fawn stress-response, meaning behaviours we developed to avoid conflict or trauma and to appease others.
We are automated to fall back on this response in situations where we feel unsafe or threatened. Practically, this means we are not able to relax and focus on ourselves before everybody around us is happy, which unfortunately is never the case, so we end up being exhausted. And we have a tendency to give away our excess energy and emotional resilience to a far lower level than is sensible when we have challenging children or are in a challenging situation, which is often the case when you have children.
The fawn stress response makes our own contentment dependent on the behaviour of others because we feel responsible for how others feel e.g. our children or partner, or even friends and extended family members, so when we are in the fawn stress response we have lost our ‘emotional independence’.
We cannot change how others are feeling
We have to let go of our short-term goal of making our children (or whoever) happy, and replace it with the long-term goal of making our children emotionally resilient and aware of their baseline and how to strengthen it. This means we have to accept the uncomfortable feelings we encounter when we don’t act on our habitual stress response. By doing so, we are able to be emotionally independent and not only have we prevented adding our own stress to the situation, but we are modelling our own increased resilience.
Giving too much
All people with emotional OE and/or the fawn stress response have the tendency to prioritise other people over themselves, ignoring their own needs and boundaries and not keeping stock of their energy level and emotional resilience.
Sadly, giving more than we have leaves us exhausted and often also resentful. Feeling resentful triggers further stress responses, therefore disabling us from being able to meaningfully connect.
Wouldn’t that be too selfish?
Ideally, we all would grow up in an emotional functional, loving and caring family in which everyone sets their boundaries, makes mistakes, sorry is said, bonds repaired with tears, laughter and cuddles, and everyone learns and grows safely. We grow best as human beings, when we live in an environment in which it is safe to just be who we are.
Many mums and individuals I talk with miss this concept of what is ‘good enough loving’, often because they didn’t grow up in ‘ideal’ circumstances and don’t have an example of what is ‘good enough’ loving nor parenting. Their background means they have a tendency to go overboard and lose sight of their own needs, because they weren’t modelled how to take their own needs into account in their childhood family.
Kaufman and Jauk (2020) gave in Healthy Selfishness and Pathological Altruism: Measuring Two Paradoxical Forms of Selfishness an overview of existing views and presented a scale to measure healthy selfishness and pathological altruism, and confirmed the importance of prioritising your own wellbeing.
“Selfishness is often regarded as an undesirable or even immoral characteristic, whereas altruism is typically considered universally desirable and virtuous. However, human history as well as the works of humanistic and psychodynamic psychologists point to a more complex picture: not all selfishness is necessarily bad, and not all altruism is necessarily good.” Kaufman and Jauk (2020)
“Healthy selfishness is largely associated with indicators of adaptive psychological functioning and genuine prosocial orientation, whereas pathological altruism is associated with maladaptive functioning, vulnerable narcissism, and helping behaviors that might be harmful to one’s self and to others.” Kaufman and Jauk (2020)
No, it wouldn’t!
So, no – it isn’t selfish to prioritise our own baseline, if we tend consistently to our baseline, the words, behaviour or feelings of our children will not trigger an unhelpful emotional reaction in us because we have built up our emotional resilience and energy level.
This way we create an emotionally healthy and safe environment for our children where they can experience whatever happens to them without being distracted by other people’s emotional reactions – and when they get overwhelmed and enter the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload, we will have the energy and emotional resilience to stay calm and help them strategically to step out of their overwhelm.
© 2020 Simone de Hoogh
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