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Improving Emotional Regulation: Michelle's Metaphor of Being the Thermostat or the Thermometer

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Original Post: Posted: December 31, 2021

Welcome to “Michelle’s Metaphors”, where I use metaphors I’ve learned or created to explain ideas related to mental health and wellness.

In this blog, we tackle emotional regulation using the metaphor of thermometers and thermostats. In many therapy offices, you’ll hear this metaphor being mentioned when discussing emotional regulation. Since my first hearing of it, I have often used it when helping my clients visualize what emotional regulation and mindfulness look like. Are you the thermometer that is constantly reacting to your environment, then changing involuntarily, or are you the thermostat that intentionally changes to adjust the circumstances around you? Here, I’ll explore how to recognize which category you fall into and how to create a balance between the two.

First, how do you know if you’re showing up like a thermometer exclusively? Follow my imagery for a moment; envision a thermometer. The purpose of a thermometer is to read the room around it and based on the room, provide an accurate reflection of temperature. More simply put, it reacts to its environment involuntarily (or one could say: mindlessly). Here are some questions to ask yourself in figuring out if you’re a thermometer.

  1. Do I change who I am in reaction to environments after reading the room?

  2. Do I react without thinking at times?

  3. Are emotional waves difficult for me and I find it hard to change my mood in a timely fashion?

  4. Do I find myself lost in trying to react to the room versus acknowledging what I need? Another way of asking this: do I meet others’ wants/needs at the expense of my own?

  5. Am I only able to calm down/regulate when I leave a room/situation completely?

So, how’d you do? Don’t stress if you’re more of a thermometer than you thought. It’s okay; there are a lot of stressors and other influencing factors in our lives that not only push us to be thermometers but sometimes require us to be thermometers for our self-preservation.

Read more to learn ways to shift more of your thermostat energy.

Ways to Become More of a Thermostat

  1. Engage in mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of paying attention and noticing how you are reacting internally to things outside of you. Following our metaphor, mindfulness’ role is like that of the thermometer within a thermostat. Mindfulness allows you to read/internalize a situation before reacting. Engaging in daily mindfulness practices such as deep breathing, mindful eating, and mindful walks can increase your confidence and ease in using mindfulness to regulate your emotions. When you are paying attention to how outside forces (people, events, sounds, etc) are impacting you, you can make clearer decisions on how to handle your reactions as they show up. When we are not mindful, we can find ourselves exhausted at the end of a workday and then snappy at our housemates because we didn’t notice how the constant email dings throughout the day were creating underlying anxiety or increased stress. Or we are feeling doubtful of ourselves and full of imposter syndrome after ignoring (or not being mindful) how our body is reacting poorly to the food we are ingesting daily.

  2. Be authentic. I notice that people lean more toward thermometer behavior when they are not being authentic to their own needs and emotions. In therapy, some refer to this behavior as over-functioning, fawning, or being a people-pleaser. No matter the name, the outcome is the same: you are selling yourself short and therefore not having the experiences you want in life. When we are authentic and transparent with ourselves about relationships that serve us and spaces that encourage us, we find more ease in becoming the thermostat versus the autopilot thermometer that has to accept its circumstances because it was placed there haphazardly or feels stuck.

  3. Set boundaries. In maintaining the metaphor of a thermostat, we can be inspired by a thermostat’s function to consistently bring an environment back to homeostasis. When a temperature is set on a thermostat, the machine works constantly to maintain its environment at that temperature (with the use of its internal thermometer too). This could be a reach; but to me, that sounds like setting boundaries to allow one to maintain homeostasis. I believe that mindfulness and authenticity are two components of feeling empowered to set boundaries. How do you set boundaries? Where do you need to grow in setting boundaries? Are you mindful of setting boundaries within yourself as well as with others? Again, I believe boundaries are the third component in being able to shift into the thermostat (regulated) mindset.

Ultimately, this metaphor can help visualize the way you manage your emotions and behavior. It is my philosophy that a balance between these two creates the highest level of satisfaction for folks. That is: it’s really hard to be absolute on either end of the spectrum, so embrace balance. Be flexible to notice situations that call you to be a thermometer and situations that will benefit from you taking an active role as a thermostat. Funny enough, we know that thermostats cannot function without an internal thermometer; so again, there’s room for both. If you’re noticing trouble changing your thermometer or thermostat energy, here are a few things to consider

  1. What is taking my energy away from making this intentional shift?

  2. Do I need guidance in shifting my behavior?

  3. How do I practice mindfulness in my day-to-day?

I hope this (overly) analytical dive was as fun for you as it was for me. Metaphors resonate with me and often help me better understand ideas. Thanks for reading Michelle’s Metaphors!

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