In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, there is a massive emphasis on Emotion Regulation. In fact, along with Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, and Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation is a pillar of DBT. Put simply, Emotion Regulation is a set of skills you can use to prevent yourself from getting into extreme emotion mind. Now, that may sound a little overwhelming at first. I know it did to me. But feeling overwhelmed is exactly the sort of thing that Emotion Regulation can help you navigate.
If you’re living with a mental health diagnosis (or diagnoses), I’m willing to bet that you’ve experienced strong negative emotions that have scared you. Maybe you’ve even acted on those emotions. The fact is, a lot of us are afraid of our feelings, especially when they are “negative”. Why? Because we’ve been conditioned to fear them. If you grew up in some miraculous, Utopian society and family where you were free to express every emotion you felt without punishment or mockery or belittlement, chances are good that you do not often struggle with overwhelming emotions. But, by virtue of our culture and family dynamics, most (none?) of us were able to fully express every emotion when we were growing up, or even now as adults. Perhaps you’ve learned over time that anger is “bad”, that sadness is “not allowed”, that crying is “weak”, or even that being overly joyful is “rude” (if you were ever told to “be quiet” for innocent childhood play, you know what I mean). We start to feel these things we’ve been programmed to repress, and then we say “I can’t feel that!” “Don’t think about that!” “This is not ok and I need to stop!”.
LET’S TRY A LITTLE EXPERIMENT: DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, THINK OF A POLAR BEAR. Don’t picture a big white bear walking across a glacier, digging into the icy water with his black paws for some fish. Don’t picture that long white fur swaying with each step. Don’t picture that black nose set at the edge of a white face. DON’T THINK OF A POLAR BEAR.
What were you thinking just then? Were you picturing a polar bear? I was as I wrote that. Do you see what happened? When we tell ourselves “I can’t think about this!” “I can’t feel this!” What we actually do is unnecessarily magnify the very emotion we’re trying to avoid. We’re making it harder. We’re making it worse.
These patterns become ingrained in us. We learn to fear our emotions or we become out of touch with them completely. In either case, we end up bottling them until they simply cannot stay stuffed down any more and they explode out of us like some stupid emotional confetti at a terrible party where no one’s in charge and everyone’s freaking out and running away from the shower of undesired specks of paper. The fact is, if we become disconnected from or afraid of our emotions, we lose the ability to be comfortable with the things we feel. This discomfort translates to feeling like we have absolutely no control over our emotions. Feeling out of control is a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy: emotions will dictate your actions and reactions if they feel “too big” to handle.
Here’s the thing, though: EMOTIONS ARE NEUTRAL. We assign identifiers like “pleasant” or “unpleasant”, “good” or “bad”; but, at the end of the day, emotions are nothing but information. As an analogy, if you put your hand on a hot stove but can’t feel the heat, you’re going to leave your hand there as it blisters and burns. You may continue to place your hand on hot stoves and, later, wonder why your palm looks like a broiled sirloin. This is like being out of touch with your emotions – you can’t get the important information the heat and stove are giving you. Conversely, if your emotions completely overwhelm you, you may feel the heat and notice the burning, but not understand that it’s because the stove was hot. You might develop a habit of avoiding placing your hand on any surface for fear of sustaining another injury. The fact is, you need to feel the burn of the stove and understand the context so you can identify exactly what hurts and why, and pull your hand away before it’s seriously injured! Otherwise, you’re moving through life with incorrect information and making ill-informed decisions that don’t actually address the cause of your suffering.
You may say, “Wait a minute! Some feelings are objectively bad!” I would argue that statement. Some events are painful, yes. Some actions we take based on our emotions can create suffering, yes. But, in and of themselves, emotions are not “bad.” Pain is, unfortunately, a part of life. It comes with the package. If you’re a living human being, sometimes, you are going to hurt. Sometimes, you are going to be sad. Sometimes, you will be angry. Sometimes, you’ll be lonely. But here’s the thing: it’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to be lonely. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but it’s OK. And, in and of themselves, not one of those emotions can cause you physical harm. There’s no reason to be afraid of feeling. The trick to Emotion Regulation is learning that you can be sad without crying, and you can be angry without yelling or throwing something across the room, you can be lonely without feeling rejected – just like you can be happy without laughing.
When we accept emotions for what they are – information about a certain situation or circumstance – we can take steps to increase our tolerance and control of uncomfortable emotions. Really, we only get ourselves in trouble when we fail to accept our emotions as they are.
Personally, I’ve struggled with this concept. I’ve viewed many emotions as “threatening” and “bad” many times in my life. Living with Bipolar and PTSD can really throw your off your gauge. For me, when emotions feel too overwhelming, I tend to try to avoid them or ignore them or distract from them – this is where things like self-harm and substance abuse come into play – OR I let them become a feedback loop of negative self talk and they consume me – “You’re a loser”, “You’re pathetic”, “No one will ever understand what you’re feeling”, “It’s hopeless, these feelings keep coming back. This will never end.” These thoughts fuel depression and can lead pretty quickly to struggling with urges to isolate from friends and family, to avoid any and all social obligations or interactions, and even to suicidality.
These attitudes and responses come from repressing emotions for too long. Those repressed feelings and emotions can quickly become “too much” for us to handle, and every time we engage in avoidance or in letting them consume us, we reinforce the idea that we have no control over them. It is impossible to make rational decisions while emotionally overwhelmed. So the trick is to learn how to interact with our emotions in a healthy way, and treat them as what they actually are: information, a natural product of consciousness, non-threatening, and a part of us (not some unmanageable force outside the realm of our control).
We need to recognize that we can be aware of our emotions without fearing them and we can experience emotions without acting on them. And, with time and practice, we can shed the burden of that conditioning, the weight of the idea that certain emotions are “bad” or “uncontrollable.” We can be free to experience and express our feelings in ways that are not harmful or consuming or overwhelming. When we can place appropriate value on emotions (which is a skill many of us have simply never learned), then we can notice, acknowledge, and let go of the emotions that are not serving us in the moment. (For example, if you’re stuck in traffic and late for work, you’re likely feeling frustrated and angry – but you do not have to spend the entire drive swearing and punching the steering wheel and growing angrier and angrier until “that fucking commute just ruined my whole goddamn day and I’m so fucking pissed at everything and everyone!” You can notice that you are angry and frustrated, take practical steps – like calling your boss or coworkers, if possible – to alleviate any anxiety which may be fueling your anger, and then let the anger pass, recognizing that you’ve done all you can and continuing to stew isn’t going to get you anywhere.) ***A NOTE: I’m a New Englander. Keeping my cool in traffic is a skill I have decidedly not mastered yet. It’s an apt example, though.
What, exactly, does that look like?
These are the three sections of Emotional Regulation, as listed in The Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan
Whether we’re detached from our emotions or completely overwhelmed, the first step is literally learning to identify what we’re feeling. Untangling the knotted nest of feelings we either can’t identify or can’t separate from the massive mess of overwhelming suck we’ve got cluttering our brains. Then, we’ve got to figure out what emotions actually are, what they do for us, and how we can use the information they give to benefit us and our growth. The second step is to learn actual, tangible skills to decrease our vulnerability to becoming overwhelmed or cut off from our feelings, and then learn the skills to increase our positive experiences with emotions. These together can help us find balance and strength. Finally, when emotions are still truly painful and overwhelming, it’s all about mindfulness and “Acting the Opposite.”
Over the next three weeks, every Monday, I’ll be sharing a post digging in to each of these three areas. Maybe together, we can learn a little bit about Emotion Regulation and tricks and tips to move, slowly but surely, out of extreme emotion mind.
A few final words on the developments happening here on Parallel Dichotomy – I’ll be following a new posting schedule: Every Monday, you can expect a resource post (like this one) sharing techniques and coping skills I’ve picked up either professionally or through my own treatment experiences; every Wednesday, you can expect either a Journal Share or another bit of personal experience and reflection; and every Friday, you can still expect the weekly “Friday Finds” posting, in addition to a Self Care Service Stop post. My progress in the Mental Cleanse Challenge will be included in the Self Care post at the end of each week until that challenge is finished. I’ll be keeping Tuesday and Thursday open for guest posts – if you’d like to contribute to Parallel Dichotomy, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any and all pieces pertaining to Mental Health, either from a professional or personal position, will be considered for publication. Each guest post will include links to your various sites and a biography section so readers can get to know you a bit better! Finally, I’m excited to announce that I’ve created a Patreon Account – if you enjoy this blog and would like to support its continuation and expansion, please consider becoming a Patron. I’ve got some really exciting guest spots and collaborations coming up, including some Podcast appearances! Parallel Dichotomy is growing and, as a Patron, you’ll get a chance to come along for the ride! You’ll get exclusive access to content and tangible goodies! As this project grows, so will your access to perks! I’m holding my first 50 Patrons, regardless of the amount pledged, in a special category, so as this evolves and things like merchandise become available, you’ll each get some free swag as a personal thank you!