Feelings Are Our Friends

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The following is a synopsis of a weekly Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group lesson, based on the work of Marsha Linehan out of the University of Washington. 

Disclaimer: I LOVE doing this, I think it is desperately needed, and I WANT to do it. However, I have zero time to do it so, while I am committed to giving it my all, I may fall behind or skip a week or two. I apologize in advance for that, and for the fact that I will not be spell checking, fixing formatting, or doing a read through before I post. No offense, but I gotta draw the line somewhere!

Emotion Regulation Skills Module: Feelings are our FRIENDS

Soooooo, I’ve been super behind in blogging due to the holiday season approaching, and just life being busy, but this module is really important to over. The first week of this module was spent mostly discussing some of my favorite mantras, and just general intentions of the module…some are my own, but some are well known in Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. Feelings are our FRIENDS!: We often think of feelings as things that are to be avoided, changed, or ignored, likely because they are so difficult to manage at times. However, feelings are important, and only become a problem  if we mishandle them. Feelings are our friends, they are there for a reason and they WANT to help us!
  2. There are no positive or negative feelings, feelings just ARE: Similar to the first mantra, we need to remember that feelings are not to be judged as good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative, etc. If we judge them as such, then we will only want the “positive” ones, and will mishandle the “negative” ones. This is such a common misconception about feelings that even Marsha Linehan herself uses this terminology in some of her writings. Feelings are neutral. They are not good or bad, and we need to avoid reacting to them in this way.
  3. Feelings aren’t FACTS: This is an AA mantra that is very helpful to remember, as feelings are not necessarily grounded in reasonable realities. For example, just because I feel lonely doesn’t mean that I am alone.
  4. Feelings travel in PACKS: When I ask someone how they feel about something, they often either give me a thought ( ex. I think it’s unfair!”), or they give me a feeling (ex. “angry”). In reality, we have dozens of feelings about a situation happening at any given time. We don’t necessarily need to deal with every single feeling we have about something, but we do  need to work on being more and more mindful of those feelings.
  5. There are only 3 things we need to do with feelings: Identify them, Express them, and Cope with them: Because there are multiple feelings inside of us at all times, we need to learn to take pause, look inside and find the emotions that we are feeling. Next, we need to articulate those feelings to God, another human being, ourselves, SOMEONE in SOMEWAY. Finally, we need to cope with those feelings in a healthy way. THESE are the basic goals of this module.
  6. We need to balance TOLERATING emotions, and CHANGING them. Sometimes, we just need to hang out with our feelings, and allow them to be a part of us. Other times, we may want to change how we feel about something, and that’s ok too. What is NOT healthy, is if we ALWAYS try to change our feelings, or if we feel such a victim of our feelings that we think we have no choice but to just dwell in them.

Myths about Emotions

After we reviewed basic goals and mantras of the module, we covered some of the very common myths that we tend to believe about emotions and why we have them. Myths are lies that are commonly believed to be true, because they have been passed down from generation to generation. Societally, we really really SUCK at handling emotions in a healthy way. Therefore, our ability to know what is healthy emotionally is very limited. Some examples of myths about emotions include:

  1. Being emotional means being out of control.
  2. Some emotions are stupid and should be ignored.
  3. Emotional people are weak.
  4. Emotions can just happen for no reason.

These and plenty of other emotional myths make it difficult for us to handle our emotions appropriately, and we need to develop challenges to these myths that are TRUE statements that we can use to stay in the reality, not in the misconceptions about emotions. For example, if you tend to believe the myth “Emotions can just happen for no reason”, a challenge may be “Emotions always have a reason, we just may not realize what the reason is”. Continuing to believe and perpetuate emotional myths is a huge barrier to becoming emotionally healthy, as is continuing to believe lies about relationships (to be explored next module!)

Functions of Emotions

Because feelings are our friends, they are important, and serve many purposes. The 3 main reasons that emotions are so valuable are that they Motivate, Self-Validate, and Communicate.

Motivate: It is often our emotions that spring us into action, helping us to decide to make changes in our lives. The stage of change model (Prochaska, DiClemente, &Norcross) is a model most associated with the addictions field, but is useful to consider in thinking about how much we want to change anything in our lives. The stages are Precontemplation (Not even thinking about changing), Contemplation (thinking about it but not ready to change yet), Preparation (Ready to change), Action (Making the changes needed) and Maintenance (Keeping those changes in place to avoid relapsing). Emotions have plenty to do with our motivation to make changes in our lives, so we need them to help us grow. For example, if I am lonely than this might motivate me to call a friend, or to talk in therapy about how to make new friends, or to go on social media to feel more connected to others.

Self-Validate: One of the mantras mentioned earlier is “Feelings aren’t facts”. This is important to remember because we often operate out of emotional logic, which leads to a bad outcome. However, the instinctual and automatic nature of emotions is that they tell us things about the world, and if we listen to our emotions carefully, they can help us understand the world, others, and ourselves more. For example if I feel hurt and disappointed because my friend didn’t call me back like she said she would, it is not necessarily true that she is a hurtful person, that she doesn’t care about me, or that I can’t be friends with her. However, these emotions help inform me about me as a friend and as a person, and if I feel them in response to this, then it may be likely that most people would feel this way in this situation, validating that my feelings are normal and are in response to whatever is happening in the current situation.

Communicate: The final function of emotions is that they communicate to others what we need them to know. More than what we tell others, our emotions are written on our faces and held in our bodies. For example, if my Mother yells at me, my face may immediately appear pained, I may frown, squint my eyes, look away, droop my shoulders or even cry. The immediate changes to my face and body posture are often noticed by others, and these things give others information about how we are responding to them and the situation. While many of us may practice a “Poker face” and try to hide how we feel, or pretend that we feel an opposite way, research shows that humans and other animals are tuned into non-verbal communication moreso than verbal communication, and our non-verbal responses are often so automatic, rapid, and subtle that we may not be able to control them.

Along with the functions of emotions, we also covered some of the gifts that are given to us by emotions. For example, guilt brings us containment, humility, and values, while anger brings us strength, assertiveness, and energy. Remembering the functions of emotions, as well as their gifts, can help us want to tolerate them, and even welcome them when they arise.

Emotional Flow

Another thing we covered so far in this module is a very very complicated chart about emotions and how they emerge, progress, and contribute to other reactions. There are lots of interesting theories about the 3 points of the triangle of awareness (thoughts, emotions and physical responses). Some theorists maintain that thoughts cause emotions, which in turn result in physical responses (ex. I think “I am a horrible person”, which leads to shame which leads to rapid breathing, increased heart rate and sweating). Others believe that physical responses cause emotions which result in interpretations of them (ex. My heart races, I sweat, and my breathing speeds up, which makes me feel shameful and then I think “I must be a horrible person”). Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that we don’t know what order these things happen in, and that it is likely dependent upon the current situation.

The most important point about this is to understand the general flow of most situations. There is a prompting event, inside or outside of us, that begins the process of emotions, interpretations of the event, physical responses, automatic internal biological processes (such as the pathways of the brain being activated), urges to act and react, and actions in response to the event. Perhaps most importantly, in situations where we become intensely emotional, or have a lot of emotions in response, there may be a “Prompting event #2” that occurs, which we may over-react to, or under-react to because of the first situation. Here is an example:

My boyfriend tells me I look tired (Prompting event #1, something outside of me). I interpret that event to be “he doesn’t love me anymore”, “he’s not attracted to me anymore”, “he’s being mean to me”, etc. I start to panic, feeling anxious, angry, fearful, etc. My heart races, blood rushes to my head, my hands get cold, my shoulders tense up, my adrenalin starts to get released so that my  fight or flight response kicks in, and i have a panic attack. My action urge is that I want to yell at him and run out the door, but instead I hide in my room and hyperventilate and cry until I fall asleep.  The next day, my boss tells me that I forgot to do something he asked me to do (Prompting event #2) and I immediately burst into tears and feel like a failure. This prompting event #2 may have been very minor, unrelated, and involving a totally different person and situation, but I react to it in a way that is similar to the first situation, because I am emotionally vulnerable and not focused on the moment, but carrying too much over into this moment.

Emotional Maturity

The last thing we covered so far in this module the last 2 weeks is the concept of emotional maturity. This is not a DBT concept, and I 100% stole this from someone who unfortunately I cannot credit because I have no idea who created it. It was given to me by a kid in my group years ago, and we liked it so much that I use it every time in this module. We reviewed a list of 16 signs of emotional maturity, discussing examples of each and exploring ways we can be more emotionally mature. The list is below, and I encourage all of my readers to try to honestly examine your level of emotional maturity. REMEMBER though, we live in a society that is emotionally IMMATURE, so we cannot feel badly if we “fail” this process, as most of us are emotionally immature and need to learn to become more emotionally mature.

Signs of Emotional Maturity

1. Accepts criticism gratefully, looks for the opportunity to improve.
2. Does not indulge in self-pity.
3. Does not expect special consideration from anyone for anything.
4. Controls temper most of the time in most situations.
5. Is able to meet/deal with emergencies with poise (not freak out).
6. Expresses feelings responsibly and specifically (using “I feel” statements).
7. Accepts responsibility for actions without trying to make excuses.
8. Has outgrown the “all or nothing” stage (Avoids finding fault in everyone and everything).
9. Is patient with REASONABLE delays (Has the ability to adjust to changes or people as needed).
10. Is a good loser (no whining or complaining).
11. Doesn’t worry, stress, or obsess over things we can’t control.
12. Does not boast or show off in socially unacceptable ways.
13. Is honestly glad when others enjoy success or good fortune R(Has outgrown Jealousy/envy).
14. Is open minded enough to listen thoughtfully to the opinions of others.
15. Plans things in advance as opposed to acting on impulse.
16. Is less sensitive and more confident in abilities.

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