One of the theories behind DBT is that emotions interfere with other aspects of functioning. If emotional arousal is high it has the capacity to interfere with thinking, experience of self, actions, and relationships. This may be especially true for people that are sensitive to emotions, experience emotions as strong and intense, and have difficulty getting emotional arousal down.
For instance, if you are feeling extremely threatened you may have a tendency to argue, attack, avoid or withdraw, attempt to problem-solve or fix by ruminating on past or recent interactions. You may become preoccupied with the event(s) in which you became threatened in the first place. When your thoughts become preoccupied with the threatening situation, it is hard to be “in-the-moment” in other areas of your life. (For instance, it is really hard to “be” with friends when your attention is clearly somewhere else).
Because people sometimes behave in out-of-control ways when they are under emotional threat, a person may experience him or herself as out-of-control of undesirable actions. Actions (ie, self harm, breaking things, picking a fight, getting drunk, attacking, saying mean things, avoiding people) may temporarily reduce or control strong emotions, but most of the time lead to unwanted long-term consequences.
People who have difficulty with strong emotions often believe that emotions “come out of nowhere.” When emotions “come out of nowhere”, it is difficult to predict when they will show up. If a person can’t predict when emotions show up, and if strong emotions lead to out-of-control type actions (or interactions!)- a person will not experience a high degree of self-control. This may lead to confusion about experience, difficulty organizing or “knowing” oneself, or problems following through on tasks or activities. Intentions may not get carried out because 1) emotional arousal is already high 2) when emotional arousal is high, the person has a lower tolerance or threshold for new emotional stimuli 3) the environment will continue to make demands/ expect things of a person. Thus, one’s attention and energy can be so pre-occupied that one may lose all sense of purpose and direction.
When emotions control a person’s life, it becomes clear that relationships are impacted negatively. Avoiding, arguing, withdrawing- or picking up the pieces after a big fight- can be a painful business that can threaten to destroy or strain relationships over time. Interactions that evoke strong emotions, invite people to take a strong stand on something despite disagreement in the community, or pursue goals and dreams may be easier to avoid altogether. In some cases, attacking or threatening other people may be a short-term way to avoid unwanted situations, losses, or other painful stuff.
Mindfulness is considered to be a “core skill” in DBT. As abstract as it sometimes sounds, the concept of mindfulness has to do with the ability to be centered, grounded, attentive, “real”, and connected. Mindfulness has to do keeping all the impinging emotional extremes manageable. One of the purposes of being mindful is to decrease confusion about oneself. “Knowing oneself” is a benefit of showing up, paying attention, and taking notice. It is extremely hard to do, takes a lot of hard work, and can be really frustrating to “get”. It is also really hard to think of how it applies, and can take considerable patience in terms of getting it “work.” It really does work, though!