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How we manipulate each other's emotions

Meet Tom.

Tom is upset about not being able to focus while writing his blog, and being overwhelmed with information to process.

Tom calls his friend, Danielle, and tells her about his feelings.

She tells him about similar experiences she had, and how hard it is to get things done. She encourages him to not be so hard on himself, because done is better than perfect, and he can always elaborate and improve later.

Tom goes out of this conversation feeling less anxious, and closer to Danielle.

So what happened here? How did Danielle make Tom feel better?

We are going to find out!


Feelings are motivators.

Based on our feelings, we can take action and change things in our lives. When we are happy - we do more of the same, and when we get worried, we solve the problems that got us worried.

Humans experience emotions all the time, and often we choose not to go through them alone.

Studies even suggest that early in life, it's even more common to use others (i.e our parents) to manipulate our emotions, than to regulate them by ourselves.

It is called "Interpersonal Emotion Regulation".

What does "Interpersonal Emotion Regulation" mean?

Simply put, in every social interaction, we use our communication with others to regulate (=control, change, and manipulate):

1. Our own emotions (Intrinsic Regulation)

2. Their emotions (Extrinsic Regulation)

In this article, I'll simplify the main points from this research. I will also state my opinions about them, and how I incorporate them into my teachings.



1. To ease reading, I won't cite within the text. See resources at the end. A lot of what I write here is borrowed from different sources.

2. I am human, I might make mistakes. Be constructive if you have corrections!

3. I do include my personal views here, as this article is about me sharing my journey.

4. I'd be happy to discuss about any subject in and around this post. Make sure you read all the way through before commenting.


Interactions are classy

We break communication down into two classes:

  1. Intrinsic, or "I'm using this conversation to regulate my own emotions"

  2. Extrinsic, or "I'm using this conversation to regulate your emotions"

Then, we identify two processes:

  1. Response-dependent - "How you respond to me matters to my attempt to regulate emotions"

  2. Response-independent - "I don't really care how you respond, emotions shall be regulated"

Now here come the questions:

When does self-regulation stop, and interpersonal regulation begins?

Usually, they go hand in hand. Studies show that even thinking (by ourselves) about talking to someone can make a difference in our emotions.

It's interpersonal when it happens in a live interaction with other people.

So that means that in every interaction we look for "interpersonal regulation"?

Yes...and no.

No, because not all interactions are about regulation.

For example, just the presence of others can reduce stress and negative emotions, but it's incidental.

We didn't mean to regulate - but emotions were regulated.

Then again, yes, because we might have made a subconscious choice to be around others when negative emotions hit us.

This is probably innate: We humans - like monkeys and rats - tend to group under stress.

In that case, it turns out that we did actively seek regulation.

Interactions are messy

Let’s get back to Tom and Danielle. So what happened there?

A. Tom regulated his own feelings using his conversation with Danielle

B. Danielle regulated Tom's feelings

C. Danielle regulated her own feelings

D. All of the above

The answer is probably D.

We engage in all forms of regulation, intra and interpersonal, intrinsic and extrinsic, response-dependent and independent.

It's all happening and transitioning seamlessly within our interactions.

Trust is risky

Any emotional experiences, "good" or "bad", surprising or expected, is most likely to make us want to share them with someone.

Looking at the example above, Tom was looking for support, and Danielle's supportive response gave Tom:

  1. A "safety signal": showing him he doesn't have to go through it alone, making the event less stressful

  2. A sense of affiliation: sharing similar experiences, reinforces the feeling of "getting good support".

Using interactions to regulate ourselves is a risk, since we might depend on a specific response, and we might not get it.

What if Danielle would have told Tom that his chances of success are slim, and that he should quit.

Tom would probably feel much worse after that response.

The same goes for good news - sharing them could make us feel better, but only if we get an enthusiastic response.

Let's look at what we have so far:

  1. Intrinsic and response-dependent: Explained above ("safety signals", affiliation)

  2. Intrinsic and response-independent: To share emotions with others we first label them, and just the act of labeling emotions is enough to lower their intensity.

Empathy is feeling with someone, by understanding them and maybe sharing their state.

For Tom to receive empathy, he must be able to express his emotional state effectively to Danielle.

Manipulating others

Once we understand the other and share their state, we might want to also change their emotional experience = engage in extrinsic regulation.

We can support them, send comforting messages, provide resources to deal with a problem, and more. We can also be “bad” and "push buttons" that will worsen their emotional state.

Studies show that people who feel more with others are more likely to help others regulate their emotions for the better.

So "Extrinsic and response-dependent regulation" means Danielle can only succeed in regulating Tom's feelings by receiving feedback that the regulation was successful.

Also, when Danielle shares Tom's experiences, she feels with him and enters (at least partially) into his emotional state. So by improving Tom’s emotional state, she improves hers as well.

How can extrinsic regulation be response-independent? The goal is to regulate them, don't we need to see that it's working?

Interestingly, supportive behavior by itself produces a "warm glow" - the act of providing a safe space makes Tom send signals (not consciously) that "it's working". It doesn't necessarily mean that Danielle managed to help Tom, but she already feels better - as if she did.

One explanation is that we can look at goals in 2 ways:

1. External goals: Actually changing something

2. Internal goals: A mental representation of changing something.

We can achieve our internal goals easily, without external feedback. (I.e feeling that we helped someone, even if we never helped them at all)

We usually feel like we helped more than we actually did.

The actual success doesn't matter as much as the feeling of success (at least to our emotional state).

Interesting cases

Some say that generous behaviors are necessarily altruistic, and that changing another person's emotional experience is an end by itself. The truth is - in some cases, we regulate others' emotions without it ever being our intention.

Maybe Danielle just heard Tom's story, and all these negative stimuli are making her anxious. Now, she actually tries making herself feel better:

It might help Tom as a "side effect", or maybe Danielle's way of making herself feel better could be making Tom feel better. Maybe, Danielle wants to remove herself from the presence of Tom (and his negativity) - physically, psychologically, or both.

Every case can be so different!

I believe that all our actions, whether kind or not, are "selfish" acts - it might seem like we intend to regulate and better others, but we really intend to regulate and better ourselves.

This is not necessarily a conscious thing.

From self-observation, when it comes to kindness and generous behaviors, I believe it is mostly unconscious - our actions might actually help others, yet we don't realize our true motives, which revolve around ourselves.

In fact, a study showed that if we feel a difference in our empathy abilities (between Tom and Danielle, for example), we might not act as supportive as we could.

Even learning empathy is, in some place, taking care of ourselves!


Each person needs something different in different settings - I don't think there is a fixed formula for emotional support that works every time, but we can see all the options, and learn to use all the tools that we have accordingly.

“Dance is a language” workshops take into consideration the existence and complexity of interpersonal emotion regulation. If we can learn empathy and understand our effect on others, we can be better dancers and better people.

P.S: What we don't know

We don't know how we gauge how much of our attempts at regulation are "getting through", and how we adjust to make it more effective on others.

We don't know when and how we choose which regulation to engage in - intrapersonal or interpersonal, and if it's both - how they relate?

We also don't know how our childhood affects our choice in regulation methods when we are adults.

Those are all the things we know we don't know, and there might be new information out there - I shall keep exploring!



Research by the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab

Interpersonal Emotion Regulation - Jamil Zaki and W. Craig Williams (2013)

DOI: 10.1037/a0033839

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