[Spoiler warning for Inside Out.]
The first step to being able to regulate emotions is being able to understand your emotions. Many people have difficulties understanding their emotions. Some people may repress their emotions; some people may have secondary emotions that cover up their emotions; some people may have a hard time knowing what they’re feeling at all.
The first thing to ask about emotions is why we have them. A lot of people– particularly people with overwhelming emotions– think that life would be so much easier if we never had to feel anything. It seems like we are just wandering around, being perfectly reasonable human beings, when suddenly An Emotion pops up and we find ourselves sobbing in the middle of the grocery store. But as tempting as it would feel at the time, we don’t actually want that. In her excellent talk The Straw Vulcan, Julia Galef says:
There’s a psychologist named Antonio Demasio who studies patients with brain damage to a certain part of their brain…Ventral parietal frontal cortex…I can’t remember the name, but essentially it’s part of the brain that’s crucial for reacting emotionally to one’s thoughts.
The patients who suffered from this injury were perfectly undamaged in other ways. They could perform just as well on tasks on visual perception, and language processing, and probabilistic reasoning, and all these other forms of deliberative reasoning and other senses. But their lives very quickly fell apart after this injury, because when they were making decisions they couldn’t actually simulate viscerally what the value was to them of the different options. So their jobs fell apart, their interpersonal relations fell apart, and also a lot of them became incredibly indecisive.
Demasio tells the story of one patient of his, who, when he left the doctor’s office Demasio gave him the choice of a pen or a wallet… Some cheap little wallet, whatever you want… And the patient sat there for about twenty minutes trying to decide. Finally he picked the wallet, but when he went home he left a message on the doctor’s voicemail saying “I changed my mind. Can I come back tomorrow and take the pen instead of the wallet?”
And the problem is that the way we make decisions is we sort of query our brains to see how we feel about the different options, and if you can’t feel, then you just don’t know what to do. So it seems like there’s a strong case that emotions are essential for this ideal decision-making process, not just in forming your goals, but in actually weighing your different options in the context for a specific decision.
That is: without emotions, we couldn’t want anything at all, not even something as simple as a pencil.
Not only that, but our emotions communicate to other people. In Pixar’s surprisingly psychologically accurate film Inside Out, the five main characters are the personified emotions in the head of a little girl. Joy can’t, for the life of her, figure out what Sadness is doing inside the head. Fear protects them from things that are dangerous, Anger makes sure things are fair, and of course she makes their human happy, but Sadness just seems to make everyone miserable. At the end of the movie, Joy learns that the purpose of sadness is to show other people that something bad happened so that they can help you. If you don’t feel sad, you can’t ever be comforted.
And the same thing is true for a lot of our emotions. Love shows other people that we care about them. Anger shows other people that we’ve been mistreated and we won’t stand for it. Happiness shows other people that good things have happened. Guilt shows other people that you are going to take steps not to do the harmful thing again.
Given that emotions are so useful, why do so many people run into problems with them? Well, as the wise say, half of everything is genetic: some people just have bigger emotions than other people, and bigger emotions can cause bigger problems. Many people may not know how to regulate emotions; if they don’t know how to deal with ineffective emotions, those emotions can just run rampant. And even the most skilled and biologically well-disposed person can have problems regulating their emotions when they’re in crisis. (If you’re in crisis, read this one and then come back. Emotion regulation is for non-crisis emotions.)
A thornier problem is that your environment might reward you for being highly emotional. If the only time your partner tells you she loves you is when you’re crying, of course you’re going to cry more; if the only time you get some time to yourself is when you’re angry, of course you’re going to be angrier. I want to emphasize that this is not manipulative and not a character flaw. This is how absolutely everyone in the whole entire world works. And if you think about it it’s perfectly natural: of course you do things that are rewarded! However, if your environment is encouraging you to have emotions that are damaging in the long run, you might need to investigate how to get your needs met in some other way or how to get people to set better boundaries.
Another big reason people don’t regulate their emotions is that they believe myths about their emotions. They might think that if you don’t blow up about something, then you don’t care about it, or that trying to change their emotions is inauthentic or impossible, which means that they don’t try to regulate their emotions at all. Or they might think there’s a right and a wrong way to feel, or that they can control their emotions with willpower, or that negative emotions are selfish, which leads them to avoid and repress their emotions– and often end up acting in even worse ways than if they’d just felt their emotions in the first place.
In addressing myths about emotions, one should take a dialectical attitude. There’s a kernel of truth in all those myths; that’s why we believe them. It’s true that anger can be a signal that you care, that trying to change all your emotions will make you a completely different person, that some emotions are difficult to regulate and many of them won’t go away entirely, that some emotions are ineffective, that you can control your emotions, and that having negative emotions can harm other people. But we need to marry them to the truths on the other side: that you can care without getting angry, that you can regulate your emotions, that you can regulate some emotions and still be the same person, that emotions are more manageable than you think, that all emotions are valid, that you cannot control your emotions by telling yourself “don’t feel that!”, and that a lot of negative emotions are helpful even if they hurt others.
Finally, DBT has a model for describing emotions. The prompting event is what sets off the emotion: for instance, your partner may have gone on a weeklong vacation without you. The vulnerability factors are what make you more susceptible to a big emotion than you might otherwise be: for instance, you might have been having a very stressful week at work, and you might not have a lot of friends that aren’t your partner. Your interpretations are your beliefs and assumptions about the situation: for instance, you might think “my partner is abandoning me!” or “a week is such a long time” or “I will never be able to get through this.” It’s important not to confuse the prompting event and the interpretations: the prompting event is the objective fact, while the interpretations are different for different people. Someone else’s interpretations might be “it is so nice to get a week by myself” and “now I can work on some projects.” Your face and body changes are the say the emotion feels in your body: for instance, you might feel hollowness in your gut, a general lack of energy, and slight dizziness. Your action urges are what you feel like doing: for instance, you might want to eat lots of chocolate and watch romantic comedies on Netflix. Your body language is what an outside person would observe: for instance, you might be moving very sluggishly and have a frown on your face. (Face and body changes are inside of you, while body language is outside.) There’s also what you said and did in response to your emotion: for instance, you might call your partner every night and throw yourself into your work projects. Finally, there are the aftereffects of the emotion: even after you stop feeling sad about your partner being gone, you may have insomnia or spend a lot of time thinking about how much you miss them.
The last part of this blog post is a VERY LARGE DICTIONARY OF EMOTIONS. This is probably the most helpful set of handouts I have ever read, because I am a person who has had some difficulty translating my emotions from what they feel like to me into language other people understand. Each of the entries describes a lot of common traits of an emotion, with the idea that maybe one of these will click. Maybe you feel anger in unusual circumstances, but you’ll relate to the way it feels. Maybe you’re not very aware of your thoughts while you’re sad, but you can notice what you’re doing. And maybe you can’t do any of that but you can notice the effects of the emotion afterward. Regardless, I hope this helps.
Remember that these are all common traits. Many people have experiences of fear, or jealousy, or love which differ from the ones described, or experience them in different circumstances. No one does, thinks, or feels everything on the list. The idea is to be comprehensive without being misleading. Also, a lot of experiences are on more than one list; don’t assume you’re angry just because you have clenched teeth.
THE VERY LARGE DICTIONARY OF EMOTIONS
Triggers: Obstacles in the way of an important goal. Pain (physical or emotional). Not having things turn out the way you’d hoped. Loss of power or status. Attacks or threats on you or someone who care about.
Thoughts: You have been untreated unfairly. Important goals are being blocked. Things should be different than they are. You are right, other people are wrong. The situation is illegitimate or wrong. Recurring thoughts about the event that triggered the anger. Blaming others.
Experiences: Tight muscles. Clenched teeth. Clenched hands. Flushing or heat in the face. Crying and you can’t stop. Wanting to hit someone, hit the wall, throw something, blow up, hurt someone. Feeling like you are going to explode.
Actions: Walking out. Frowning or making a mean expression. Crying. Grinning. Brooding or withdrawing from others. Attacking others (physically or verbally). Making aggressive gestures. Pounding, throwing, or breaking things. Stomping. Slamming doors. Storming out. Swearing. Complaining. Using a loud, sarcastic, or quarrelsome voice.
Aftereffects: Thinking only about the things that make you angry, about things that made you angry in the past, or things that might make you angry in the future. Numbness, dissociation, or depersonalization.
Triggers: Seeing, smelling, or touching feces, urine, blood, a corpse, or a slimy/dirty/unclean person or animal. Eating something you don’t want or are repelled by. Touching things owned by a stranger, dead person, or person you don’t like. Observing or hearing about someone who grovels, strips others of dignity, acts hypocritically, fawns, or deeply violates your values. Observing or hearing about cruelty, abuse, oppression, betrayal, or deep violations of your values. Having or watching unwanted sexual contact. Getting blood drawn.
Thoughts: You are swallowing something toxic. You are being contaminated (literally or metaphorically). You are ugly. Other people are ugly. Other people are evil or scum. Other people disrespect authority or your ingroup. Other people are immoral, sinful, or unnatural. You are morally superior to other people. Disapproval of yourself or what you feel, think, or do.
Experiences: Nausea. Sickness. Urge to vomit, destroy the disgusting thing, take a shower, run away. Gagging. Choking. Lump in your throat. Aversion to eating/drinking. Feeling dirty, unclean, contaminated, polluted. Fainting.
Actions: Vomiting. Spitting things out. Closing your eyes. Looking away. Washing yourself. Cleaning spaces. Changing clothes. Avoiding eating or drinking. Running away. Treating with disrespect. Attacking. Swearing. Smirking. Frowning or making a mean expression. Clenching your hands or fists. Sarcasm. Wrinkled nose.
Aftereffects: Thinking only about the disgusting thing. Sensitivity to dirt.
Triggers: Someone having something you want or need but can’t have. Someone seeming to have everything go their way. Not being part of the in crowd. Being alone when other people are having fun. Other people getting credit for things you did. Other people getting something you really want. Someone getting praised for something when you didn’t. Being around people who have more than you. Someone else being more successful than you.
Thoughts: You deserve what others have. Others have more than you. It is unfair that you have so little compared to others. You have been treated unfairly. You are unlucky, inferior, a failure, mediocre. Comparison to others who have more than you or traits you wish you had. You are unappreciated.
Experiences: Muscle tension. Teeth clenching. Face flushing or getting hot. Rigidity in your body. Pain in your stomach. Urges to get revenge, hurt the other person. Hating the other person. Wanting the other person to lose what they have, to have bad luck, or to be hurt. Feeling unhappy when other people have good luck. Motivation to improve.
Actions: Working hard to get what other people have. Self-improvement. Taking away what other people have. Attacking the other person or saying mean things about them. Trying to get even or show the other person up. Avoiding people who have what you want.
Aftereffects: Thinking only about what other people have that you don’t, when others have more than you, what you don’t have. Not appreciating what you do have. Setting goals.
Triggers: Threats to life, health, well-being. Trauma flashbacks. Being in a situation similar to one where you or other people have been threatened or hurt. Silence, new situations, being alone, darkness, crowds, leaving your home, performance in front of others. Pursuing your dreams.
Thoughts: You might die. You might be hurt. Someone might reject, criticize, or dislike you. You might fail. You might embarrass yourself. You might not be helped when you need it or lose help you have. You might lose someone important or something you want. You are helpless. You are incompetent.
Experiences: Breathlessness. Fast heartbeat. Choking sensation. Muscle tension. Teeth clenching. Nausea. Coldness. Hairs standing on end. Butterflies in stomach. Urge to scream, run away, avoid.
Actions: Fleeing. Running. Avoiding what you fear. Talking nervously. Pleading for help. Talking less or not at all. Screaming. Darting eyes. Frozen stare. Not doing what you fear. Freezing. Crying. Whimpering. Trembling. Shaky voice. Swearing. Diarrhea. Vomiting.
Aftereffects: Thinking only about things that scare you, future loss and failure. Easily startled. Losing control. Loss of concentration. Isolation.
Triggers: Doing something you think is wrong. Breaking a promise. Hurting others, objects, yourself. Being reminded of something you did wrong.
Thoughts: Your actions are to blame for something. You behaved badly. You wish you’d behaved differently.
Experiences: Hot, red face. Nervousness. Suffocating.
Actions: Trying to repair the harm. Apologizing. Trying to make up for what you did. Bowing your head. Kneeling.
Aftereffects: Setting goals. Changing behavior.
Triggers: Wonderful surprises. Getting what you want, what you have worked hard for, what you worried about not getting. Success. Desirable outcomes. Being respected, praised, liked, loved, accepted. Belonging. Spending time with people you love or like. Pleasure.
Experiences: Excitement. Physical energy. Giggling. Face flushing. Calm. Peace. Expansiveness. Urge to keep doing things that make you happy.
Actions: Smiling. Bright face. Bounciness. Bubbliness. Telling others how happy you are. Silliness. Hugging people. Jumping up and down. Optimism. Enthusiastic, excited voice. Talkativeness.
Aftereffects: Courtesy, kindness, friendliness to others. Optimism. Not being worried or annoyed easily. Thinking about other times you were happy.
Triggers: Threats to an important relationship. Potential competitors pay attention to someone you love. Someone threatens to take away important things in your life, dates someone you have a crush on, ignores you while talking to a friend of yours, has positive traits you don’t. Being treated as unimportant by someone you care about. Your partner asks to spend more time alone, flirts with someone else, has an affair.
Thoughts: Your partner does not care for you. You are nothing to your partner. Your partner will leave you. Your partner is behaving inappropriately. You don’t measure up. You deserve more than you are receiving. You were cheated. No one cares about you. Your rival is possessive, competitive, insecure, envious.
Experiences: Breathlessness. Fast heartbeat. Lump in threat. Muscle tension. Teeth clenching. Suspicion of others. Injured pride. Rejection. Helplessness. Urges to be in control, keep hold of what you have, push away or eliminate your rival.
Actions: Aggression towards the rival. Trying to control the freedom of the person you are afraid of losing. Accusations of unfaithfulness. Spying. Interrogation. Collecting evidence of wrongdoings. Clinging. Dependency. Demonstrations of love.
Aftereffects: Seeing the worst in others. Distrust. Guarding your relationships. Isolation.
Triggers: A person gives you or does something you want or need, has admirable traits, is physically attractive. Having fun with someone. Spending a lot of time with someone. Sharing a special experience with someone. Communicating exceptionally well with someone (feeling understood).
Thoughts: This person loves, needs, appreciates you. This person is physically attractive. This person is wonderful, pleasing, attractive. This person will always be there for you.
Experiences: Excitement. Energy. Fast heartbeat. Self-confidence. Feelings of invulnerability. Happiness. Warmth. Security. Calm. Wanting the best for someone. Urges to give someone things, spend time with the person, spend your life with the person, be close to the person physically and/or emotionally, make the person happy, show the person how much you love them.
Actions: Saying “I love you.” Expressing positive feelings about the person. Eye contact. Physical contact (inc. kissing, hugging, cuddling, sex). Smiling. Spending time with the person. Doing things the other person wants.
Aftereffects: Only seeing the positive side of a person. Daydreaming. Distraction. Trust. Feeling capable, competent, wonderful, alive. Thinking about other people you have loved, other people who have loved you, positive events, how wonderful the person you love is.
Triggers: Loss with no hope of regaining what you have lost. Death. Unpleasant surprises. Separation. Not getting what you want, need, have worked for. Getting things you really don’t want. Rejection, disapproval, exclusion. Discovering powerlessness. Being with someone in pain or sad. Loneliness. Missing someone.
Thoughts: A separation will never end. You won’t get what you want or need. Life is hopeless. You are worthless.
Experiences: Tiredness. Wanting to spend all day in bed. Listlessness. Ahedonia. Pain or hollowness in your chest or gut. Emptiness. Feeling like you can’t stop crying, or if you ever start crying you’ll never be able to stop. Difficulty swallowing. Breathlessness. Dizziness.
Actions: Avoiding things. Helplessness. Actually spending all day in bed. Inactivity. Brooding. Moping. Moving slowly and in a shuffling way. Isolation. Avoiding things you used to enjoy. No longer trying to improve. Saying sad things. Talking less or not at all. Frowning. Quiet, slow, or monotonous voice. Drooping eyes. Slumping. Crying. Whimpering.
Aftereffects: Not thinking about happy things. Irritability. Yearning for the thing lost. Negativity. Self-blame. Thinking only about sad things in the past. Insomnia. Indigestion.
Triggers: Rejection, especially if you expected praise. Others finding out you have done something wrong. Doing/feeling/thinking something people you admire think is immoral. Betrayal. Feeling like you don’t live up to a standard. Being made fun of. Public criticism. Having your integrity attacked. Being reminded of wrong, immoral, shameful things you did in the past. Having emotions or experiences others have disapproved of or acted like you weren’t experiencing. Exposure of things you’d rather keep private. Failure at things you know how to do. Physical characteristics you dislike.
Thoughts: Others will reject you. You are inferior, not good enough, a loser, unlovable, bad, immoral, wrong, defective, a failure, ugly, silly, stupid. You have not lived up to others’ standards. Comparison to others.
Experiences: Pain in the pit of the stomach. Dread. Urges to disappear, hide, cover your face or body.
Actions: Hiding behavior or a characteristic from other people. Avoiding people you have harmed, people who have criticized you, yourself. Covering your face. Bowing your head. Grovelling. Appeasing. Repeated apologies. Looking down or away from others. Slumping. Sinking back. Halting, quiet voice.
Aftereffects: Shutting down. Blocking emotions. Aversion to thinking about what you’ve done wrong. Distracting yourself. Preoccupation with yourself. Depersonalization, dissociation, numbness, shock. Attacking, blaming, fighting with others. Isolation. Alienation. Difficulty solving problems.
Other emotions: Weariness. Distress. Shyness. Wariness. Surprise. Courage. Doubt. Boredom. Powerfulness.