I hear it all the time: “I need to get my emotions under control!” or “How do I stop feeling this way?” At times, it may seem like if you could just control your emotions, most of your problems would be fixed! You try all kinds of methods for doing this: emotional eating, distracting yourself, self-punishment, maybe even drugs or alcohol. Anything to make you feel differently when you don’t want to feel the things you’re feeling right now. But the truth is, it isn’t really possible to control your emotions. Now, don’t let that stark reality get you down. With practice, emotion regulation can help you to manage emotions so that they no longer control you!
Learn to regulate your emotions by defining their purpose, understanding the difficulties in managing them, and identifying the emotion.
Defining the purpose of your emotions
It may feel like emotions are just causing problems in life and you wish you could do away with them entirely. However, you have emotions for a reason. Similar to the way physical sensations like pain communicate what your body is experiencing, emotions communicate to you what your brain is experiencing. For the most part, emotions happen for good reasons, as biological and instinctual responses, and whether they are positive or negative, you need to listen to what they are saying.
Emotions can also directly motivate behavior, causing us to respond quickly or enabling us to achieve things once thought impossible. Emotions are connected to intuition, which can lead to cautious behavior or an instinct to throw caution to the wind. As much as they can cause turmoil and chaos, they also add color and vibrancy to life. Emotions, both positive and negative, connect and bond us with other people. Life without emotion seems to hardly be life at all.
Understanding the difficulties in managing emotions
There are many factors that contribute to difficulties in emotion regulation, whether biological, environmental, or psychological. Sometimes extreme emotions are reinforced by others around you, like when a child learns that throwing temper tantrums in the check-out line gets him a candy bar. Other times, the emotions feel so overwhelming that it seems impossible to even try managing them. Or maybe you just don’t feel like trying sometimes, perhaps because you believe that your extreme emotions are just part of who you are. I believe that one of the biggest barriers to emotion regulation is simply a lack of emotion-regulating skills. This is why I believe so strongly in DBT, because with it you can learn the skills to manage emotions that feel daunting to tackle.
Learning to identify emotions
Step one towards managing your emotions is learning to identify them. I suggest using a feeling wheel like this one. This is especially helpful because it is usually relatively easy to identify general emotions such as “happy” or “sad,” but those emotions don’t tend to be wholly informative because they aren’t specific. A good way to practice emotional identification is to print out a feelings wheel, carry it with you, and give yourself moments during the day to check in with how you’re feeling. Start general and get as specific as you can. It may help to write these down or keep a log throughout the day so you can start to see patterns.
It may sound simple, but labeling your emotions can have a profound effect on the power that they have over you, because then you know what you’re facing, whether enemy or friend. And if you know what you’re facing, you can learn how to respond. When you are somewhere on the spectrum of anger, you know to take a “time out,” or find a quiet spot to cool down. When you are anxious, you know to practice meditation or grounding. Overwhelming things tend to be so much less overwhelming when you’ve figured out a strategy or a plan to respond to them.
Now you have a basic idea of why emotions are important, why they get to be so unmanageable (especially when bottled over lengthy periods of time), and how to begin learning to manage them. I’d encourage you to start practicing with a feelings wheel and see for yourself the difference that it makes. It will be gradual, but I believe that you will see a change. And check back here for more blogs about the practical ways to continue building emotion regulation skills through DBT!
If you struggle with emotions that feel overwhelming and unmanageable, I would love to talk to you about those in person. We can work together to make a plan and start managing your emotions instead of letting them control you! You can schedule a session by contacting me at 940-222-8703 x705 or LauraL@acorncounseling.services, or schedule an appointment online.