Welcome to Part 2 of my Intro to Emotion Regulation resource series. If you haven’t yet, check out part one (linked above) for a broad introduction to the topic.
In my living room, there’s a skinny, overstuffed closet. It’s become kind of a catch-all. It’s a disorganized, cluttered, precariously stacked mess of all of the things I don’t need in my day to day life (and some things I may never need again). At the very bottom of this Leaning Tower of Useless Crap, there is a bent, crinkled, water stained cardboard box filled to the brim with various electronics chords I’ve collected over the years. Affectionately (sort of) called The Rat’s Nest, this flimsy box houses a massive ball of boom box power cables, skinny wired head phones that no longer work, chords to long-since-corrupted and discarded laptops, USB Christmas light strands, component cables of all shapes and sizes, and for some God forsaken reason, an actual spool of yarn, among other things. I only know these details because a few weeks ago, I actually needed a chord that I thought might be in there. Thus began what would become an infuriating 40 minutes of following each individual wire, looping, twisting, untying, and looping back, all in what turned out to be a fruitless search. (The wire I needed was, of course, in the back of the closet, free of the box, completely untangled and ready for use, but such is life.)
Dear Readers, I present to you: The Rat’s Nest (or, Sheila’s emotional mess incarnate).
I think of emotions like The Rat’s Nest. When you first think about them, they seem pretty straight-forward, if sometimes unpleasant and challenging. It’s just a big ol’ box o’ wires, right? But when it comes to untangling those wires, identifying what each one does, and sorting through them to create something a little more manageable than that enmeshed mess, things get a little more complicated. STEP ONE of Emotion Regulation is literally just identifying your emotion(s): observing them and describing them, and then learning what they do for you.
To stick with The Rat’s Nest metaphor, it’s figuring out what each individual wire is and what it’s for. Because, just like with my stupid and unnecessary mess of chords, if you can separate your emotions, sort them out, and identify their function, then you can use them to help you, rather than being overwhelmed by the mess and not knowing where to even start. And you can toss the wires you no longer need, or that no longer serve you.
The first time I was exposed to Emotion Regulation was at the Partial Hospitalization Program I attended after being discharged from Full Hospitalization. Another patient there had a phrase he repeated several times: “If you can name it, you can tame it.” It may sound like a silly bumper sticker platitude, but for me, it really sums up the first step to Emotion Reg. You’ve got to know what your feeling before you can even start to do anything about it.
Yes, I’m THAT Blogger who does an impromptu photo shoot in my kitchen at midnight to embellish my post and get my point across. Don’t judge me! (OK, you can totally judge me. I can take it. Judge away.) I call this series: “Sheila tries to express basic human emotions while slightly over tired and VERY over caffeinated.”
SURE, you can name the basic emotions. You might even be really good at saying, “God! I’m so freaking angry right now!” or “I’m so sad, nothing matters.” But let’s dig a little bit deeper there, alright? Say that ANGER is every single component cable in my Rat’s Nest. Well, for component cables alone, I’ve got the old school red, yellow, white to red, yellow, white; the red, yellow, white to PS1 connector cable; the newer red, blue, green to red, blue, green; a wicked old school red, yellow, white to cable connector, and a Python component cable with all the colors you could ever want for your video entertainment needs. (No, this isn’t a plug for Python cables… see what I did there?)
Silly puns aside, if anger is the broad name given to all of my component cables, you can see how that’s still confusing and hard to differentiate. If I told you to go into my Rat’s Nest and get me a component cable, but I didn’t tell you which type, that would be an incredibly daunting task, right? But what if I told you “I need you to grab the Red,Yellow, White to Red, Yellow, White cable.” OK, realistically, if I ever asked you to get anything from The Rat’s Nest, you’d be well within your rights to kindly tell me to fuck off. But let’s pretend that’s not an option: you’re somehow my indebted servant or intern or something, and you have no choice in the matter. Even though you still have to untangle the mess, at least you know specifically what you’re looking for. That makes it much easier.
Similarly, screaming “I’M ANGRY!” in every situation wherein anger is the “root” emotion can make it awfully hard to actually understand what you’re dealing with. Are you Furious or are you Humiliated? Are you Annoyed or are you Seething? (No, this isn’t an SAT vocab boost, I promise.) Think about it, though. Annoyed is very different from Seething. Differentiating and naming your specific emotions can, in and of itself, help you get to the bottom of where that emotion came from and what it’s telling you.
Which brings me to my next important point: Emotions are just information. You do not need to react in any predetermined way. If you feel depressed, you do not need to isolate; if you feel anxious, you do not need to self-harm; if you feel angry, you do not need to lash out. Our emotions get us into trouble when we think that we have no control over them, or when we try to avoid and ignore them because of our fear of them.
But here’s the kicker, when we avoid emotions, we reinforce the idea that avoidance is the only real option. Over time, our avoidance urge becomes so strong that it starts to act on anticipation rather than a precipitating event. Let me give you a quick example: you have a really stressful day. You feel like you need to “decompress”, so you open the fridge and crack a few beers before bed. By the time you go to sleep, you are stress free and feeling fine. Later in the week, you have a less stressful day, but it’s still been a little rough. You remember how alcohol helped you relax after that last bad day, so you drink a few more beers. Over time, this continues, until, “Holy shit! I have a stressful day coming up – that huge presentation I need to give – well, I’ve got to loosen up a bit to be able to sleep. I’ve got to be loose for the actual presentation.” Before you know it, your brain is now home to the super exciting short-cut “stress, or anticipated stress = drinking.” The idea has been repeatedly reinforced and, before you know it, you feel completely incapable of sitting with any stress at all. You’ve got to drink it all away. Your avoidance response becomes seared into your unconscious. Now, this isn’t your fault. It’s natural to want to avoid pain. But wouldn’t you agree that that is not the way to live your best life? Needing a drink or two (or six or seven, because, let’s be honest, tolerance to alcohol builds pretty quickly) every time you’re stressed or thinking about being stressed is not healthy – physically or emotionally. The truth is, we all have to learn to sit with our stress. And then, over time, learn skills to alleviate it in a healthy way.
When it comes to learning Emotion Regulation, it’s important to interact with our emotions through a lens of positive assumptions. We tend to view certain emotions (like anger, sadness, and fear) as being “bad”, being “the enemy”, and being “the root of our problems”. We assume that our emotions are threatening and that we need to stuff them down so that they don’t make us do something harmful or take over our lives completely. But the fact of the matter is that those core assumptions, those attitudes we hold toward emotions, are flawed. Changing our perspective of emotions, and viewing them in a more positive light, can help take some of the power away from them right off the bat. I’m not sure how to make this list of positive (or just realistic) assumptions pretty or interesting, but they are truly invaluable in this process, so I’m just going to list them for you. (Sorry if this is where the post seems to get dry, but reading on is worth it, I promise. And there’s a pretty, inspirational quote picture waiting for you! Isn’t that what the Internet likes?) Anyway, here:
1) Your emotions are important. They exist to give you information about yourself and the world around you. Don’t minimize them by avoidance!
2) You have to experience and acknowledge your emotions. Avoiding them will just cause more problems over time.
3) The more you try to avoid or escape your emotions, the more powerful and consuming they will become. Yes, really.
4) Feelings are simply another way we experience the world. They are a form of sense, just like taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight.
5) Feelings are always right. It’s OK to feel whatever you are feeling in a given moment. We can have automatic negative or false thoughts in reaction to emotions, and we can have go-to behaviors that can be harmful or maladaptive, but the emotions themselves do not cause these things. They are always giving us necessary information, and honoring our feelings is key to on-going health and wellness.
6) Before you can move on to a different emotion, you have to sit with the one you’ve got currently. This isn’t Mario Bros. You can’t just hold A and slam B to jump over this stuff. Your emotions are not a Piranha Plant and they will not eat you or drag you down a Warp Tube. You can sit right next to them, acknowledge them, and learn from them without being threatened.
7) Feelings do not need to be acted upon. Feelings can increase the chances of you acting in a certain way, but just because you feel happy doesn’t mean you need to laugh. Just because you feel overwhelmed doesn’t mean you have to turn to self-harm or substance abuse or isolation.
8) You are separate from what you’re feeling. Your emotion is a part of you at any given moment, but it is not “you”. You are not angry, you are feeling anger. Who you are is not the same as what you are feeling in the moment. (Even if the moment is very long and it seems to consume you.)
9) The automatic thoughts attached to your emotions are likely not giving you the most useful advice if you are in “high-arousal” (high depression or anxiety: feeling your heart beat fast, muscles tighten, that “I need to do something fast, RIGHT NOW! to get rid of this terrible feeling!” thought loop we’ve all been stuck in) Your thoughts will tell you avoid, avoid, avoid!! But, again, this will not help you in the long run.
10) As much as it sucks, Emotion Regulation can’t be learned overnight. It takes practice, hard work, and consistency to master. As my case manager at the PHP program said, “These skills are simple, but they’re not easy.” Be gentle with yourself, but keep moving forward. Keep practicing. Over time, those unhealthy shortcuts in your brain will fade and you’ll have brand new, freshly paved roads leading to healthy coping skills and a better overall life.
11) Emotion Regulation is not about insight. If you’re anything like me, you can analyze the crap out of every situation imaginable. You can think about it intellectually. You can consider the angles. But that won’t necessarily help you out here. There was a fantastic quote in one of the books we read from in Morning Group at the hospital (I know, that sounds corny as all hell). But this quote stuck with me so much, I wrote it down in my journal. It’s from a passage called, “Let Life Reveal Itself to You” from the book Journey to the Heart by Melody Beattie:
Sometimes we get so caught up in needing insight – thinking, if we can just dig up that treasure chest of understanding and clarity, all of our problems will be solved. This is not the case. Emotional Regulation is about constant practice and application of the behavioral skills you need to, over time, create healthier responses to overwhelming emotions. It’s not a journey to the temple to meditate for a month and find complete serenity. It’s not a quick fix. Don’t over-think it. As the Nike advertisers would say, Just Do It! and then do it again, and again, and again until it’s your “new normal.”
12) Emotion Regulation skills are a process. Again, there’s no magic “on” switch that’s going to get thrown overnight and allow you to wake up screaming “I’m cured!” This, like everything else in life, is a process and not an event. As we dig deeper into specific skills next week, you’ll see that there are many tools available. Some will work better than others for you. I have my favorites, and you’ll have yours. Some will not work well for you the first time, but may be just what you need the second or third time. It’s a whole lot of trial and error.
Again, on paper, these skills are simple and straight forward, but putting them into practice is not easy. It involves literally reprogramming your brain. Pulling apart each individual wire to make everything you keep useful, and to ensure you’re able to get rid of the things that are not serving you and are just cluttering things up.
THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING, THOUGH is to “simply” be mindful of your emotions. Name them. Avoid the urge to avoid them. Again, in instances of depression or anxiety, avoidance can be everything from isolating yourself from the people who care about you to suicidal ideation or action. It encompasses the entire spectrum. At the core, though, all maladaptive behaviors are about avoidance of emotions we can’t or won’t tolerate. It’s completely understandable if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to want to get rid of all that grossness immediately. You are not wrong for having the urge to use substances, self-harm, lock yourself away from the world, or even consider suicide. I want you to hear that loud and clear: YOU ARE NOT WRONG. You are not bad. You are not a failure. You are not pathetic. You are not weak. You are none of those. This is not a condemnation. This is not a “you SHOULD do better” post. This is simply an introduction to the idea that there are other, healthier alternatives which, over time, will help decrease your suffering and aid in recovery. I also want to reiterate that I am not an expert in this. I’m working on learning this stuff, too. I’m in my own recovery process. But, in my experience, this stuff works. And it works wonders.
And I leave you with this handy Emotion Vocabulary Card. What are YOU feeling?
I hope that you found this post informative and helpful. Part Three of this series will be posted next Monday!
What are your thoughts on all this Emotion Regulation stuff? Do you think it could be helpful? Do you think it’s a load of crap? Do you have questions or parts you don’t understand? Leave all your thought in the comment section below! If you found this post helpful, please like and share it, and, if you enjoyed reading this, take a cruise around the rest of the blog and feel free to subscribe!
FINALLY – Let’s get SOCIAL! I love to chat about pretty much anything and everything – TWEET ME or catch me on FACEBOOK for general updates on Life, the Universe, and Everything! And in case you missed it, I’ve started a Patreon! I’m REALLY excited about the growth happening with this blog and some wicked cool collaborative projects I have coming up! Patrons will receive exclusive content, early access to blog posts, further materials on the resources discussed here (with some really fun art work by a secret guest contributor who’s kind of a big deal in the world of internet comics) and lots of other wicked cool perks as they become available! I’m also holding my first 50 Patrons, regardless of donation amount, in a special category – when physical goodies arrive, you’ll get some freebies, even if you only back me for $1/ month as a personal thank you from me to you!