“If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.” – Lev Grossman
Have you ever sprung into action after experiencing an emotion without pausing to reflect with mindfulness? You’re certainly not alone if you can relate to this tendency to react, rather than respond to your present moment experience. Sometimes the consequences of acting in a reactive manner are insignificant, and sometimes they are even adaptive, such as feeling fear and then pulling a child away from being hit by a car. However, there are times when behaving without mindfulness, or on automatic pilot, may lead to deleterious consequences. This is why it is crucial to check the facts of the situation to assess whether or not your emotional reactions fit the facts before taking action.
DBT & Emotion Regulation
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a therapeutic treatment modality that offers concrete skills that can be learned, practiced, and applied to your everyday life. Similar to many skills, once learned and practiced over time, they have the potential to become a part of your natural repertoire. DBT consists of four modules: (1) mindfulness; (2) interpersonal effectiveness; (3) emotion regulation; and (4) distress tolerance.
Each skills-based module builds upon the other, although individual benefits may be derived from changing any part of the overall system. This is akin to changing one malfunctioning piece of a machine, and then noticing some improvements in how the rest of the machine functions. We can all benefit from the ability to effectively regulate emotions. Even if it’s tough to manage your emotions right now, the good news is that it is possible to acquire emotion regulation skills with knowledge and practice.
Goals of Emotion Regulation
- Understand and label your emotions
- Decrease how often you experience unwanted emotions
- Decrease emotional vulnerability and increase resilience
- Decrease emotional suffering and manage extreme emotions
Understanding & Labeling Emotions
In order to gain greater insight into your emotional world, it’s essential to learn what emotions do for you. The idea is that we all experience emotions for a reason. Emotions serve valuable purposes, and we need them to live full and vibrant lives.
Some of the things that can interfere with effective emotion regulation include reinforcing consequences, feeling moody, excessive worry or rumination, myths about emotions, and underlying biological vulnerabilities that interfere with changing emotions.
Remember that emotions are complex responses to both internal and external events. Emotions such as guilt or shame may arise from painful internal events, such as thoughts that amplify these emotions, or painful external events that elicit the emotional responses of guilt or shame. The complex system within which emotions operate can be changed by changing any part of the overall system. In other words, “changing any part of the system can change the entire response” (Linehan, 2015, p. 209).
Finally, we need effective ways to describe emotions. By learning how to apply DBT skills to your emotional experience, you can more effectively observe, describe, and name your emotions as a result. In turn, this can lead to increased effectiveness in regulating your emotions.
Check the Facts
Part of being effective in regulating emotions includes being adept at changing your emotional responses. In order to do this, it’s essential to pause and check the facts before taking action. This means being willing and able to explore whether or not your emotional reactions fit the facts of the actual situation. Consider what it might be like to mindfully observe the situation as a neutral third party. How would you describe the people, places, and events?
Checking the facts also means being willing and able to actively modify your beliefs and assumptions in order to fit the facts. For instance, consider the possibility that you may be assuming there is a threat present when this may not be the case. Ask yourself what evidence you have to support the existence of the perceived threat.
Additionally, try to be willing to truly consider alternative interpretations or explanations for distressing events. Challenge yourself to come up with a few reasonable alternative explanations by taking a different perspective. How might another person view the same event? Notice the ways in which your experiences with uncomfortable or painful internal events shift as a result of pausing to check the facts before taking action. Allow yourself to rest within the space of that pause between stimulus and response, simply observing your experience for what it is, describing what you observe, and selecting a course of action.
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Linehan, M.M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Featured image: sunflowers by marco magrini / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0