Welcome to the fourth and final part of this series! If you’re new, I’ve been giving a quick overview Emotion Regulation, which is one of the four “pillars” of DBT treatment. If you haven’t yet, or if you need a refresher (it’s been a minute since I last posted on Emotion Regulation, I know, more on that later), I strongly suggest you read part one: Emotion Regulation – What is That?!, part two: What Am I Feeling? (And Why It Matters?), and part three: OK, I Know What I’m Feeling… Now What? before continuing here. If you’re all up to date, then read on, Macduff*!
Ahhhh… the return of the Rat’s Nest! It just wouldn’t seem right to finish this series up without it. Besides, untangling the Rat’s Nest happens to be the best way to tie up this topic! (See what I did there?) The final portion of Emotion Regulation is “Decreasing Emotional Intensity”. There are some specific tools and tricks to greatly reduce the negative feelings we don’t want and, in some cases, even get rid of them completely. As with everything else in DBT (and any therapy or healing work) there is no instant gratification, there is no “EASY button” (Am I dating myself? Yes, dear reader, if you are younger than twenty-five, you likely would consider me “old.” There. I said it so you don’t have to!) While there is no “quick fix”, there are some things we can each practice which, over time, will allow us to feel much more in control of our emotions. We can take the driver’s seat again and move from Emotion Mind to Wise Mind.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to run very briefly through the things we’ve already covered. I promise to be quick. We’ll just rip off the redundancy Band-Aid rather than pull out the sutures of “shit you’ve already read” one by one.
Remember how this series started? With the simple idea that emotions are neither good nor bad, they are simply information. The only time any emotion can get us into trouble is when we avoid it or deny it so long that we believe it is “unmanageable” and that we have no power over it. This is the case for most of us, at least at first. If you learned that anger is “bad”, you’re likely walking around with a lot of inhibited anger that is messing with your relationship to others as well as yourself. Eventually, that anger is going to boil over and you are either going to explode at someone else or take it out on yourself. If you’ve struggled with suicidality before, you may start to get nervous when you feel even a little sad or isolated; if you’ve experienced panic attacks from social anxiety, you probably tense up the minute you start to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable in a crowd. You tell yourself “I CAN’T FEEL THIS. THIS IS DANGEROUS.” over and over until you’re trying to avoid anything even remotely associated with that emotion at all costs. And every time that cycle repeats, those pesky, maladaptive shortcuts in your brain that tell you you must avoid those feelings are reinforced. We then find ourselves in a predictable and entirely unhelpful self-fulfilling prophecy. We believe that something is too much to handle, and thus it becomes too much to handle. We start to view our emotions as some massive, unstoppable force outside of us, when, really, no emotion is outside of our control. We just need to learn the tools to manage it.
This is the part of the post where I digress quickly to give the same disclaimer I’ve given in every post in this series: DBT is not about minimizing your struggles and it is not a suggestion that you can just wave your Positive Thoughts Wand through the air and let it shower you with the mystical power of the Sparkles of Optimism and be magically free of all of your struggles. This is work. It’s taking the time to learn the tools and practice using them until it’s easier for your brain to fire neurons that say “This sucks! Here’s a healthy coping skill!” than it is to fire the neurons that say, “Hey you. Yeah, you. This sucks. You know it sucks. There’s nothing you can do. Let’s make it suck more!” (Because, really, that’s what our negative coping skills do in the long run – they make our lives, both internal and external, worse.)
OK, so we’re using tools, not shooting Care-Bear Rainbows of happiness out of our… abdomens. Great! What kind of tools, you ask? Fantastic question! That brings me nicely to telling you what Tool Number One is! (See, I’m responsive!) Step one to Emotion Reg. is identifying emotions. Really taking the time to name, specifically, what we’re feeling. You may say, “I’m angry.” But “angry” is a really broad emotion – are you livid or are you irritated? Are you seething or are you peeved? See the difference there? It’s important to recognize, as much as we can, our specific emotion. Especially when it comes to healthy coping.
Think about it – if you are someone who has come to believe, through experience, that “anger is bad”, you’re going to have a visceral reaction to anything that feels even remotely like anger. But naming it, saying, “I’m irritated right now.” can make it feel much less threatening. Remember, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” You’ve got to separate the individual wires from the tangled Mess of Uselessness before you can figure out what’s what; which ones to keep and which ones to toss. Looking at the box, that original heaping mess of wires, controllers, headphones, yarn, speakers, screws, power chords, and component cables, was incredibly overwhelming at first.
When I started this series, I knew that the Rat’s Nest would be a really useful metaphor, but man did I put off this post! In part, because this post required the sorting and organization of all of the chaos that was in that little cardboard box. I don’t think I need to draw too bold a circle around how perfectly that avoidance also fits with this topic. But finally, despite not wanting to, I sat down and I did it. (For you, Reader – I did it for YOU!)
As I sat on my living room floor slowly tracing wires through loops and freeing them one by one, I did so while watching what is probably my absolute favorite series of all time – The X Files. I can quote just about every episode at this point, but I never get tired of watching it. Why do I mention this here? Because it was a healthy little dose of self-care. Which is essential in Emotion Regulation.
It’s hard work, and it can feel completely overwhelming, especially at first. If you are one of the 99.9999999999% of us who grew up being told, somewhere in your life, to stuff one emotion or another, actually digging into your feelings, being curious, sitting with them, and working through them is very difficult. Take care of yourselves! Do something you enjoy! Take breaks! Just don’t avoid the work all together, because, as I said, that’s where we all tend to get into trouble.
Over time, and with practice, identifying and acknowledging emotions gets easier. Then you can move into some of the skills for decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions and increasing positive emotions. That’s where we dump the whole box of wires out and look at it. We see how complex and tangled it is, but we can start making it neat and manageable, one wire at a time. In part three of this series, we checked out some specific skills to decrease that negative vulnerability and ways to increase positive experience. If you’re living with depression, or any mental health diagnosis, or you’re just here to learn how to better manage the emotional suckiness of any kind, it’s so important to remember that this is a process, not an event. You can’t snap your fingers and have the wires miraculously untangled. It’s not going to happen. If you go into the process thinking that it will, you’re going to get frustrated and give up before you even start.
TA-DA! Separated and manageable!
That photo is a portion of the Rat’s Nest, no longer tangled, with each item easily identifiable. For those wondering, this amazing feat took two and a half episodes of The X- Files to complete. I didn’t sit down expecting to be done before Scully introduced herself to “the FBI’s most unwanted.” I probably would have thrown the box and my computer had I expected that of myself. And then I would have spent hours telling myself how stupid and worthless I was for not accomplishing the impossible – because depression and anxiety are just neat like that. All that to say – have reasonable expectations of yourself and be gentle. I’ll say it one more time, because it really is that important: this is work. This is hard fucking work. But it’s worth it.
OK, we’re now in that dreamed of world. The wires are separated and organized! I’ve thrown the cardboard box into the recycling bin so that I may never lay eyes on it again! I know exactly what I have, and I know exactly what I don’t need!
Now that’s done, what next? What do I do with all the crap that I know I’ll never use again? What do I do with the broken chords? Say we’ve finally pulled apart and named our emotions, and the broken ones are the one’s that we really don’t want anymore – the ones that really suck? Because, let’s be honest, while anger and sadness and loneliness are, like all emotions, simply giving us information, they are uncomfortable to feel long-term. In life, we’re going to feel them from time to time. That’s a given. But a lot of us have felt them for so long with no tools to properly interact with them that they’ve become this constant thing. Those shortcuts in our brains are well-worn and comfortable. Emotion Reg. is about learning to pull a Robert Frost and cut through the underbrush to make a new, better path. Eventually, that path will be just as used as the old one, but at first, it takes commitment and dedication to our recovery process to blaze that trail. We’ve been stuck in a feedback loop of all that junk for way too long and the mass of negativity and pain needs to go!
Remember in part two, when I was first talking about the Rat’s Nest and I said that for some godforsaken reason there was an actual spool of yarn tangled and mixed with all the wires? I wasn’t exaggerating. The only way to get it separate was to cut it.
So, what do we do with the emotional yarn? The stuff that’s just tangled up and preventing us from the untangling process? We flex those healthy coping muscles and we forge the tools we need to cut through it. As with anything in DBT, the number one approach is mindfulness. What does that look like? DBT is big on steps, so here is the step by step guide to mindfully managing negative emotions:
OBSERVE YOUR EMOTION
Note it’s presence: name it and acknowledge it.
Step Back. You know what it is, but you also know that it is within you, you are not within it.
Get unstuck from the emotion. Untangle it from the other wires. Hold it out and away.
EXPERIENCE YOUR EMOTION
This is where we have to sit with it for a bit. This is the uncomfortable part, but it’s worth it, I promise.
Think of it as a wave, it’s come, it’s washing over you, it will recede.
Try not to block or suppress the emotion. It’s not going to hurt you, even if it’s uncomfortable. It’s not a danger to you.
Don’t try to get rid of the emotion or push it away. Feel it.
Don’t try to keep the emotion around, either.
Don’t hold onto it.
Don’t amplify it.
Do you ever find yourself “spinning”? You start to feel depressed and then you put on depressing music and focus on your depressing thoughts and just let them build? I know I have fallen into this trap more times than I can count. There is a difference between feeling and acknowledging a difficult emotion and torturing yourself with it. Don’t torture yourself.
REMEMBER: YOU ARE NOT YOUR EMOTION
You do not necessarily need to ACT on your emotion.
Remind yourself of times you have felt DIFFERENT.
When we’re in super emotion mind and engulfed in negative feelings, it can seem like we’ve never felt anything different and we never will. This is a lie we subconsciously tell ourselves. Actively remind yourself of a time when you were not angry or upset or lonely. This can help prevent that spinning.
PRACTICE LOVING YOUR EMOTION
Don’t judge your emotion (or yourself for having it).
Practice WILLINGNESS – don’t refuse to engage with your emotion.
Radically accept your emotion – “I’m really hurt that my friend cancelled our dinner plans. I’m disappointed and I feel rejected.” If you feel rejected, you may start to tell yourself some lies like, “My friend hates me.” “No one ever hangs out with me.” “I don’t have any friends because I’m a loser.” Remind yourself that just because you feel a certain way right now does not make it the Truth, and it does not mean that you will always feel that way. Remind yourself of times that your friends have not cancelled on you. Accept that you feel disappointed, and accept that that feeling does not need to consume you and send you spiraling.
Some automatic thoughts associated with emotions simply don’t serve you. They are junk and you don’t need to keep them around. You need to challenge them and then toss them.
In the Rat’s Nest, I found a bag of screws and washers, specifically for some piece of furniture somewhere that I no longer own. I found phone jacks. I found a strand of USB Christmas Lights (that I used to love) with a cut wire, and I found headphones with only one ear bud.
While not actively screwing up my process of untangling (unlike the yarn), some of the things I found in the Rat’s Nest are simply not necessary for me to keep around. I don’t need to hold on to any of these things. I’m sure that we all have emotional stuff that we just don’t need anymore, even if it used to serve us (like those USB Christmas lights). This is where the really hard work comes in. And this is the section of Emotion Regulation that, if you practice it, will have the biggest impact in your life. You need all the other stuff we’ve talked about first, just like I needed to dig through the mess that was the Rat’s Nest first. But what do you do with the things that you know you don’t need, that you know are not serving, but that you feel attached to?
As backwards as it may seem to someone who hasn’t been living with challenges around managing emotions, our negative emotions can feel like a safety net. They are familiar. It’s easy to sink into them. Sure, now you can name them, you can be mindful of them, you can tolerate them, but how do you actually change negative emotions?
You use the power tool of DBT. You Act Opposite. This is not easy and will make you incredibly uncomfortable at first. (At least, it did me.) What does “Acting the Opposite” mean? Exactly what it sounds like. Here’s another DBT list for you:
Do what you are afraid of doing… OVER AND OVER AND OVER.
APPROACH events, places, tasks, activities, and people you are afraid of.
Do things to give yourself a sense of CONTROL and MASTERY.
When you are overwhelmed, make a list of SMALL STEPS you can do; then DO the first thing on that list.
GUILT OR SHAME (when these feelings are justified)
Repair the transgression: Say you’re sorry; make things better if possible.
Commit to avoiding that mistake in the future.
Accept the consequences.
Let it go.
GUILT OR SHAME (when these feelings are unjustified)
Do what makes you feel guilty or ashamed OVER AND OVER AND OVER.
Approach; don’t avoid.
SADNESS OR DEPRESSION
Get ACTIVE. Approach; don’t avoid.
Do things that make you feel COMPETENT and SELF-CONFIDENT.
Gently AVOID the person you are angry with rather than attacking; avoid thinking about them. Don’t ruminate.
Do something NICE rather than mean, passive aggressive, or attacking.
Imagine sympathy and empathy for the person rather than blame.
THAT’S THE LIST I WAS GIVEN in Partial Hospitalization as examples of Acting Opposite. These are only examples, and they are only methods to prevent yourself from suffering too greatly with your emotions. Obviously, this is a simplified list. Fear is different than Phobia, for example. Working through a reduction in vulnerability to a Phobia is best done between you and your treatment professionals. For unjustified Guilt or Shame, this is only for activities. For example, you may feel unjustly guilty about taking an hour for yourself to read or watch TV. This is the situation in which you would approach until you no longer feel guilt or shame. This is not meant for trauma survivors (like myself and many of you wonderful readers) who may feel deep shame as a result of their trauma. Again. that is something that needs to be worked out with proper supports in place to prevent any re-traumatization. This is more of a springboard. A place to start.
And nothing needs to be set in stone. My ideas of Acting Opposite when I’m depressed, for example, change depending on circumstance and severity. If I’m moderately depressed and trying to summon the strength and motivation to go to work, I will drag my ass to work. That’s Acting Opposite. One really bad days, it means dragging myself out of bed and into the shower. Maybe forcing myself to wash a couple of dishes. Maybe it’s just making myself get off my bed for five minutes and walking around my apartment before crawling back into bed. You know you. Do what you know you can, then do just a *little* bit more. Overtime, you’ll thank yourself. Because the hold your negative emotions have on you will diminish.
Living with a mental health diagnosis (or diagnoses) means that many of these struggles will be present in our lives, in some form, for a long time. Possibly forever. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to say “Yeah, I see you, but you’re not running the show!” Even if we could only say that 50% of the time, wouldn’t that be a hell of an improvement? I know it would for me. That’s why I work to apply the skills from this series to my life every single day. Sometimes I fail miserably – sometimes the wire I’m tugging is just too knotted and it’s time to take a break and try a new angle in the morning – but that’s OK, because everything is progress. Everything is a little step toward recovery.
NOTE: I AM NOT A THERAPIST, PSYCHOLOGIST, PSYCHIATRIST, OR MEDICAL EXPERT, and this series is not intended to be used in place of professional treatment – I’m just sharing some tools and approaches I’ve found useful in my own recovery. If your current providers are not using DBT and you are interested in learning more, I highly suggest bringing it up to them. It’s well worth it.
AS ALWAYS – I look forward to hearing your thoughts! Leave ’em in the comment section below, find me in the Twittosphere @paradichotomy, or pop in on Facebook! Peace and love, all. Sorry this post was such a long time coming!!
*RE: “Read on, Macduff” I’m aware that the actual quote is “Lay on, Macduff”, I’m playing off of our pop-culture misquotation, not the original Shakespeare. Also, this is not an invitation to kill me in battle. Please don’t do that.