“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
All of us struggle with our emotions from time to time. Perhaps in the way that Dorian Gray expresses in the opening quote. We sometimes feel we are at the mercy of our emotions, at times even feeling ravaged by them. So, we look for ways to take control of them, dominate them, or at least enjoy them with a free revelry. With fuller fairness to the character Dorian Gray, there is a context to the quote. His relationship with his emotions is portrayed as rather profound as he also encounters polarizing tensions between libertine vicissitudes and stifling probity, tensions concomitant with the moral complexities of being human, and mortality.
Whatever our context or stage of life, both our emotional resilience and vulnerability fluctuate across time depending on the quality of our personal relationships, how we engage in productive and meaningful activities, such as work, how we’re sleeping, whether we exercise and our diets, are a few examples of factors that contribute to our emotional experiences and wellbeing.
Furthermore, if any of us have experienced neglect or trauma, or suffer from neurodevelopmental delays or mental disorders that impair optimal health, regulating our emotions will be difficult. This is true in generating needed emotions to start and complete tasks in daily living, as well as downregulating overwhelming emotional states that precipitate or co-emerge with crises.
All of us possess emotion regulation skills, at some level. Whatever level, or degree of skills we possess, these are challenged at times, conditioned by the factors mentioned above, as well as the challenges presented to us by our ever-changing environments. At times our emotions are placid, as we rest at baseline, other times we are in the agonizing throes of existential, moral, or spiritual quandaries that feel unbearable.
The Goals of DBT Emotion Regulation Skills Training
The goals of emotion regulation entail learning about the nature of emotions and how they work and why we can trust them, how to tamp down and change overly abundant or disproportionate emotional reactions to situations without suppressing them, and ultimately how to let go of emotional suffering while befriending our emotions. All within the dialectical framework giving primacy to the dialectic of acceptance vs. change, as we live into new patterns.
UNDERSTANDING AND NAMING EMOTIONS
It’s important that we understand our emotions and know that they do good things for us, even though they can get the best of us at times. They are basically functional and adaptive. Our emotions help us get stuff done, they motivate our behaviors, and they facilitate our relationships, just to name a few. These functions of emotions have been outlined in Marsha Linehan’s DBT Training Manual, Greenberg and Paivio, and later by Scott Spradlin (yours truly) and here we explore these functions again in service of taking them seriously, and valid.
KNOW WHAT EMOTIONS CAN DO FOR US
Understanding our emotions helps us to connect with the triggers, bodily changes, thoughts, and action urge that are bundled with our emotional experiences.
1. Our emotions motivate us to do stuff.
We can see by the word emotion, motion or movement emerge from our feelings as they move us into action. When emotion is triggered, we feel action urges with which we are born, many of them are biologically “hard-wired” and unlearned. For example, the newborn human’s instinct to fuss and cry aloud for warmth, comfort, and food elicits exactly that from the adults greeting the newborn. This is the experience expectancy that guides the newborn. When we were born, we made a fuss, and this kept us alive, and no one had to show this to us.
Over the course of our lives, our emotions move us away from danger to keep us alive and safe. Curiosity and interest promote learning and mastery skills. Attraction draws us to our love interests that often result in the formation of a new family. Anger may help us to solve problems in relationships or energize us to overcome the many inevitable obstacles we will face in life. The love and affection of parents promote their work on creating safety and social connection for their children.
2. They help us communicate with others and to influence them.
We communicate with others with our whole being. Starting with our faces, and our body language, including gestures as well as the tone and inflection of our voices, well before we speak words.
This is especially important to know that our emotions are influencing others, pretty much always when we’re in the presence of others, whether we are mindful of this. We humans kind of Wi-Fi with one another, simultaneously sending and receiving emotional information.
To be socially effective, we need to be self-aware enough to know how we’re coming off to others. It’s wise to measure our postures, facial expressions, and tone of voice with our desired outcomes in various contexts. Sometimes we’re not mindful of these factors we may speak harshly to our children or spouses, too often, or we can come off as disinterested at a job interview. Perhaps we speak too loud in class or at social gatherings, coming off as domineering and unfriendly. To name a few.
3. Our emotions communicate to us.
emotions are constantly giving us information by way of what Stephen Porges, in his model of Polyvagal Theory, calls neuroception, a very helpful system rooted in neurobiology that takes in and translates emotional information to help us adapt to our environments. To use more traditional DBT language, our emotions are alarm bells.
Intuition is a form of knowledge when we have a vibe about something. As we’ll learn in later entries, wise mind practices entail listening to reason as our check and balance to emotions and help us to fact check our emotions for accuracy. and will help us prevent the mistake of making our thoughts literal and becoming trapped in emotional reasoning.
Our Continued Journey with Emotions
All of this to say, our emotions are our friends. When we listen to them, and we let them be. They guide us. They’re valid. This is true despite the times our emotions threaten to dominate us or surge against invalidation from self or others, as they seek to help us toward important ends. As we established, this is due to the ranging vulnerabilities we listed at the outset, we may become overwhelmed by our emotions, we may second guess them and try to suppress or ignore them, treating them as though they’re irrelevant. Here we are in combat with our emotions rather than in dance with them and find ourselves bouncing between the extremes of emotional lockdown and outright emotion dysregulation. This is a true hell for many of us.
DBT offers a path and tools to help us to build a life worth living for all of us and a way out of hell for some. And these are themes that we will pursue in our following installments, in which we will explore tools and practices to cultivate skills for regulating and befriending emotions including:
- Labeling/naming our emotions
- Increasing emotional resilience
- Decreasing emotional suffering
Come journey with us as we learn more about our troubling and elegant emotions and how we can live into new ways of living with them skillfully as we find our paths toward love, meaning, and connection.
 Greenberg, L. and Paivio, S. (1997). Working with emotions In Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Publications