Do you ever wonder whether it’s better to show your emotions or to keep them hidden? Perhaps your hairstylist cuts your hair much shorter than you asked for. Do you decide it’s better just to wait till it grows back in (and find a different stylist), or should you let the manager know how infuriated you are? Either strategy has pros and cons, so which is the lesser of the two evils?
According to a recent study by the University of Catania’s Maria Quattropani and colleagues (2022), most situations present two starkly different alternatives for managing your emotions, and it is indeed often hard to know which way to react. The key to healthy adjustment, they argued, isn’t always being right about your choice but being able to see that there is indeed a choice.
They noted that “flexibility in emotion regulation represents a central tenet for overall psychological adjustment” (p. 698). In other words, some situations call for expression, and some for suppression. Even if you take the wrong turn in this dilemma, at least you’re able to see that life often presents more gray than black-and-white areas when it comes to handling your emotions.
Emotional Flexibility and Its Measurement
You might think that all of these choices would depend on the quality of your emotional intelligence. But what if your emotional intelligence isn’t all that high? Are you stuck in an endless loop of constantly saying and doing the wrong thing?
The idea of emotional flexibility can become your saving grace. Even if you don’t top out at the positive end of the emotional intelligence curve, Quattropani et al.’s research suggested using emotional flexibility as your go-to alternative skill.
You can get an idea of what this quality looks like by seeing where you rate on the measure the Italian research team used, the “Flexible Regulation of Emotional Expression” scale, abbreviated as “FREE” (Burton & Bonanno, 2016). To complete this scale, you put yourself into 16 situations that fall into four categories based on the emotion involved in the situation (positive or negative) and your reaction to that emotion (express or conceal). For each, you are to rate yourself from “unable” to “very able” to be even more expressive of how you were feeling.
See how you would do on these four sample items:
- Positive-Expressive: You receive a gift from a family member, but it’s a shirt you dislike.
- Negative-Expressive: Your friend is telling you about what a terrible day they had.
- Positive-Conceal: You are in a training session and see an accidentally funny typo in the presenter’s slideshow.
- Negative-Conceal: You are at a social event, and the person you’re talking to frequently spits while they speak.
How did you do? Were you perhaps confused by the positive-negative distinction? The thinking behind this scale is that you are able to use cues from context to decide whether to show or hide your feelings. Thus, someone giving you a shirt you don’t like for a present would be a situation in which you would be expected to show positive emotions even though you don’t feel them.
In the scenario involving the typo, there is a positive emotion that you feel that you need to conceal or else face condemnation from others in the room (even though they may have the same reactions as you do).
Tying Emotional Flexibility to Mental Health
The U. Catania researchers translated FREE items into Italian (and double-checked them for meaning) and administered them to an online sample of 503 adults ages 21 to 72 (average 29 years old), most of whom (85 percent) were female. In addition to the FREE scale, participants completed measures that, combined, assess the trait of emotional intelligence: well-being, self-control, typical emotionality, and sociability. The research team included 12-item standard symptom checklists to assess mental and physical health.
Using a statistical model that allowed them to evaluate each possible predictor of health separately, Quattropani and her associates demonstrated that, consistent with previous emotional intelligence research, those four trait-like qualities predicted positive health outcomes. However, even after taking these scores into account, FREE scores added their predictive value, with enhancement negatively and suppression positively relating to psychological well-being. Thus, less enhancement and more suppression seemed to provide the magic formula for emotional flexibility’s relation to positive outcomes.
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Training Your Emotional Flexibility
If you take as your starting point your assessment of your emotional intelligence (honestly appraised) and find that you don’t think you’re all that adept, the Italian findings provide hope that change may be possible. Putting yourself back into those scenarios now, imagine whether it’s good to put on a show of tremendous happiness at a gift you don’t like. Based on these findings, it’s not. This may be because other people can sense that you’re going overboard in your reaction and therefore become offended or because you’re making yourself feel something you don’t.
Conversely, in suppression scenarios, covering up an emotion inappropriate to the situation for different reasons may benefit you in other ways. Your job is to use your emotions to foster good relationships and attend to your psychological health. A small degree of covering up may allow you to accomplish both goals.
Looking at the larger picture, you can now see why the quality of emotional flexibility can be so important. You don’t want to go through life always showing the same emotion or over- or under-expressing your feelings. Gauging how you react to the dual demands of situations and your inner state can help you make up for whatever you lack in your basic emotional intelligence.
To Sum Up
Your route down the pathway to fulfillment is greatly eased by being high in your ability to read people, situations, and your inner state. Practicing the skill of emotional flexibility can help you find the ideal balance as you adapt to life’s many emotional quandaries.