This module is about emotion regulation. Difficulties regulating your emotions can cause a whole host of problems. If your emotions are out of control, you can wind up screaming at people you like, self-sabotaging, or being suicidal. A lot of people who have problems with binge eating, substance abuse, or self-harm are using them as ways to handle their emotions, because they can’t handle their emotions any other way. Conversely, you can wind up suppressing or numbing your emotions and never feeling anything at all.
A few days ago, I saw on Tumblr someone responding to a worksheet from the emotion regulation module of DBT with “this is the most neurotypical bullshit I’ve ever read”. And while this is prima facie absurd– after all, DBT is a treatment for a mental illness– I think it gets at a very real truth.
A lot of people with overwhelming emotions have experienced a long history of people offering their goddamn useless opinions about it. “Why don’t you just calm down?” “Pull yourself together!” “Just take a deep breath!” “You’re just being manipulative.” “Normal people don’t feel upset about that.” “Stop looking for attention.” And so when you read advice about how to manage your emotions, you think of it as just another person who doesn’t know how bad you have it offering their goddamn useless opinions. And even if you try the strategies and they work, you feel like you’re admitting that every dickhead who said “pull yourself together!” was right.
So let me be upfront: fuck those people.
Emotion regulation– especially if you’re a person with any kind of Big Emotion, especially if you’re someone who never learned as a kid, especiallyespecially if you’re both– is really hard. Dealing with your emotions well is something to be proud of. And if you fuck up– even if it’s a time ‘normal’ people wouldn’t fuck up– it’s okay, because it’s really fucking hard!
And emotion regulation doesn’t mean “calm down”. In fact, sometimes it means “get more upset”.
Emotion regulation isn’t about not having emotions. Instead, it’s about having useful emotions. A useful emotion is effective and fits the facts in duration, intensity, and kind.
Imagine that you show up at work and discover you left your house keys at home. A useful emotion would be feeling a little bit of guilt or shame– something that will motivate you to remember it next time. If you instead got angry at your girlfriend for not reminding you that you were supposed to take your house keys, that emotion wouldn’t fit the facts in kind. If you broke down crying in your office while repeating “I am the worst person to ever live, I am the worst person to ever live”, that wouldn’t fit the facts in intensity– forgetting your house keys isn’t bad enough to cause that strength of emotional breakdown. If you were still beating yourself up about it two weeks later, that wouldn’t fit the facts in duration– that is far too long to be angry at yourself about forgetting those car keys. Finally, an ineffective emotion is one which causes you to behave in a way that doesn’t match your goals and values: for instance, if you felt so guilty about forgetting your car keys that you couldn’t work.
In DBT, emotions are divided into primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the instant responses we have to situations– for instance, you might feel love when you see something that reminds you of your child, anger when someone cuts you off in traffic, or happiness when you listen to an album you really like. Secondary emotions are all the other emotions. Sometimes, secondary emotions are emotions you feel about your emotions: for instance, you might feel ashamed of your happiness, because the things that make you happy aren’t cool. Your secondary emotions might be a way of repressing your emotions: for instance, if you feel uncomfortable about feeling angry, you might turn it inward and feel guilt instead. Shame, anxiety, and rage are very common secondary emotions.
As a general rule, primary emotions tend to be more useful than secondary emotions do. Disgust keeps us away from things that might poison us; anger allows us to stand up for our rights; fear protects us from things that might hurt us. But a lot of secondary emotions are really inappropriate to their situations: if someone has just called you a nasty name, you really ought to feel angry at them, not guilty. And a lot of secondary emotions get in the way and don’t let the primary emotions do their job. If you’re busy feeling shame about your happiness, you can’t feel happiness.
The primary strategy for dealing with secondary emotions is mindfulness. In particular, you need to be aware of what your primary emotion is, you need to not judge your primary emotion, and you need to expose yourself to it. (Note that this means whatever emotion you’re currently feeling. If you’re sad right now, then be sad. But you don’t need to go digging up all your past sad, unless you want to.) Mindfulness reduces secondary emotions and allows you to feel your primary emotions.
The goals of the emotion regulation module are to teach you to be aware of what you’re feeling in the present moment, to notice when you’re avoiding your emotions or doing dumb shit because of your emotions and not do that, to notice physical sensations associated with your emotions and tolerate those, and to increase your ability to shift frames in a situation.
The first post in this series will be about understanding and naming emotions; the second, about changing your emotions; the third, about reducing your vulnerability to unwanted emotions; and the fourth, about managing really difficult emotions.