I don’t know about any of you, but sometimes I feel like my emotions are straight up out of control! I have been working on a presentation on DBT skills, and they have helped me so much in my ability to get curious about my emotions and respond in a way that honors them rather than reacting. DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy was a therapy developed specifically for borderline personality disorder. People who suffer from this disorder often have a particularly hard time managing and regulating their emotions, however, I think this is something we can all use a little wisdom and support with at times.
Just this morning I was listening to a podcast by Tara Brach and a main tenant of the podcast was to “feel our feelings.” Intuitively we know this is true, but on another level we will do anything in our power to avoid them. Bring on wine, oreos, netflix, and facebook! Something I also love about Tara Brach’s work is that she is quick to point out that much of our tendency to avoid is completely hard wired as a natural limbic system response. She added that we have a huge amount of conditioning when feelings are difficult to do anything but feel them. To me this is at the heart of difficulty with emotional regulation. When we have the courage and increased skills to dive into our feelings rather than do anything we can to escape we can learn to ride the waves of emotions with much more grace and maybe even learn a thing or two from them.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy adds to this with the idea that if we can better understand and name our emotions we can work with them more effectively. This seems so simple, yet can be so empowering. If we know the messages emotions are trying send and we are not afraid to listen we can work together far more harmoniously than our typical push and pull that often times leads us feeling up and down and out of control.
DBT uses a model of emotions to describe this process. According to the model something comes along that activates us. The model calls this the prompting event: Dun, dun, dun. You know those lovely little life events that just love to ruin our day it seems. For the sake of illustration say you see a Bear-- This event will likely start the process of an emotional response-- as it should...
Next comes step two. Our interpretations. In the case of the Bear we might think, “Oh crap, this is not safe!” This will lead to the next steps where the emotion comes in our body and finally the last step that prepares us for action. We run away and live to see another day! Emotions for the win!
Sometimes, however, we get stuck at one or more of these phases in the process. Let’s start with interpretation. Unfortunately, we often have ones that are not correct. Ever busted yourself with this? Assuming the worst, making mountains out of molehills, taking things personally that have nothing to do with you? Don’t worry, you are not alone. In fact, there is a whole theory of counseling based on this. Cognitive behavioral therapy is essentially revolves around the fact that we have faulty “cognitions” Ie thoughts or interpretations, and these are often hard wired too. They can also be ways of warning us to be careful of things that did not go very well for us in the past. Remember the bear? Jumping to fear in that case would be good, but sometimes it leads to running from a teddy bear, or a figure that resembles the bear. If we learn to pay better attention and tune into these thoughts before reacting we can nip our emotions right in the bud! Or, even if we aren't able to catch it right away it can still offer valuable information about the stories we often tell ourselves or where we get tripped up.
Next, the emotion takes over our body and prepares us for action. This part is so important too. Sometimes if I am not feeling particularly mindful I feel emotions in my body first. For example, my first clue that I need to relax is when I feel tightness in my chest and my breathing gets shallow. If I address this, I can often work backwards to find the events and interpretations that got me there before things get to out of hand. Emotional patterns are also very hard wired into our body and can often help us clue into what we are feeling. For example, shame likes to present like a sick feeling in the gut, anxiety loves the chest, ect. As we become more aware of where these live in the body we can learn more about the emotions underlying them and how they can be better attended too. Another strategy here is some good ol’ coping skills. For example, if my breathing is shallow and chest is tight taking some time to meditate, work on some deep breathing, or taking a quick time out can help bring me back into balance while I sort the rest out.
Then finally we have an urge. This is so natural and necessary as well. This is usually fight, flight, or freeze depending on the emotion or situation. It can be our one final chance to listen before responding. With the bear it keeps us out of danger, but can also be where maladaptive responses come in as well such as avoiding, numbing, lashing out, ect. If we learn to befriend this response and come at it with more curiosity as a natural response we can often learn from it as well. It can gives us clues leading to something below the surface that we could be running or hiding from.
So stay tuned as I talk about each emotion as it relates to this process in the upcoming blogs...what I have learned from them on my own, my clients, and how you can tune in yourself. Through attending and befriending we can all get along and learn to cope in this crazy emotional world we live in. We can stay present and learn the message they are sending. Messages that can motivate us for action, let us know our stories need some gentle correcting, telling us we need a quick break, or that it might be time to face that painful wound we don’t realize we are hiding from.