Join me on my YouTube channel DBT Skills with DrReneeHoekstra to identify some of the barriers to figuring out what you feel.
Sadness is one of those ordinary, human, connecting, important emotions. Lately I’ve been reflecting on how sadness is expressed in families, what is communicated about sadness, and what happens when people can’t acknowledge sadness.
Sadness is related to loss, and every person at some point in their life goes through loss when change occurs. Graduating from school, having a baby, getting married, moving, and getting a new job are all examples of changes that could generate sadness. Even when better things might be coming along, there is generally a loss of familiarity, old routine, social environment, and schedule. The loss of predictability takes up energy and attention that can be unsettling and even overwhelming.
In many families and cultures sadness is considered something that is problematic, and is often talked about with disdain, contempt, or pity. Sadness has been equated with being pathetic, not having a backbone, being weak, or being worthy of ridicule. When is the last time you used the word sadness in your vocabulary, and how did you use it? Was sadness used in a way that enhanced a connection with another person, or was it a disguise or judgement about how another person should express themselves? Do you get embarrassed when others cry or express sadness? Do you try to shut down their feelings, fix the problem, or ignore the emotion? Or was your verbalizing sadness an open invitation for a person to share openly, feel deeply, express themselves better, or to be understood?
The lack of acknowledgement of sadness can result in disconnect, alienation, confusing about one’s emotions or feelings, or even anger. Expressing or experiencing distress related to loss is an expression of vulnerability; a need to band together with the people we care about, a way to bring community together. Ridiculing, berating, or scapegoating people because they struggle with grief only makes it worse.
Grief is one of those things that has its own timetable, and can show up at unexpected times. There is no right way to go about it, and everyone has their own process to work through. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to each week that are fearful of showing or expressing emotion in public, and avoid being in public because they might become anxious or upset. It seems unfortunate to me that so much of our culture is shaming those that express or identify sadness. So many people think that no one else feels the way they feel, and this often inhibits expression or discussion of what people are missing the most. People frequently start apologizing to me for crying, and some have suggested that if they cry they deserve be locked up in a psychiatric hospital or “the looney bin.” Others inform me they spend a great deal of energy suppressing, inhibiting, ignoring, or distracting themselves from how they feel.
In some cases, sadness can take up residence in a person’s life and become depression. The open expression of sadness is generally one of connection and deep support, whereas the behaviors of depression can reduce connection with others; such as irritability, low frustration tolerance, complaining, expressions of hopelessness, or threats to give up.
A normative expression of sadness is generally moving, touching, and connecting. Consider what movies or music you may have seen or heard that have moved you deeply, and if sadness was part of that process. Consider what brings about sadness in your life, and how/ in what ways are you able to share it? What losses have you endured or gone through? In what ways have you been inhibited from expressing or sharing the pain of what happened? In what ways can you honor or acknowledge your own sadness; even if no one else can do it for you?
What is Dialectics?
Dialectics is based on the idea that two opposing concepts can both be equally true. One truth does not trump or rule out another, which undercuts the dichotomy of a “I am right you are wrong” type of relationship. A common dialectic is that you are perfect as you are (acceptance), and that in order for things to turn out differently in your life, you need to do things differently (change). One is not more true than the other, and one truth does not rule out the other truth. Sometimes people need acceptance, and sometimes people need to be challenged. Both belonging and growth are an inherent part of being in relationship.
Dialectics challenges the idea that one person is always “right”, because when you take into account diversity of perspective, other truths often arise. Being “right” often fails to take into account effective communication and the value of the relationship. Experience and emotions get ignored. A set agenda of being “right” often gets people stuck in a very rigid, dichotomous, black and white, non-dialectical stance. Dialectics are important in that sometimes you can find the one thing you have in common with your enemy instead of focusing in ways you are different. Relationships exist in context of conflicting truths, yet relationships are the glue that carries us through life.
What are the four Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills?
DBT is a complex treatment that has confusing origins in terms of how it was developed and who it was for, and has been tailored to a wide range of populations and settings. The DBT skills are universally applicable materials that help people with extreme and painful emotions, intolerable life situations, and relationships. The four skills sets are as follows:
Core Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a skill that helps people focus attention, regulate arousal, calm the brain, quiet the mind, and settle in. Being mindful is a way to steady and anchor oneself in order to observe quietly and not “react” to what is going on. It is inherent in all of the other skills in that it requires a steady, quiet, secure stance in the face of demanding life situations. It takes spaciousness to know what is going in with your body, your self-experience, your wants and desires, and your life. If you don’t pause the moment and check in with yourself, it is easier to get “caught up” in the banging and thrashing of what life throws in your direction. Mindfulness can be a spiritual practice of quiet contemplation, a way to press the pause button, and way to regroup. Core mindfulness skills taught from the DBT material include skills of observing and describing without judgement. Other traditions, spiritual practices, health care services, and therapies teach mindfulness, so it is not “new” nor is it confined to just DBT skills; its roots are actually in Zen Buddhism. There are multiple ways of accessing mindfulness including mindfulness based programs, meditation groups, trainings, and apps. DBT groups are known for implementing a mindful practice or exercise in every group, and like many spiritual traditions are simply considered part of a daily practice.
Emotion Regulation: This is a set of skills that helps people to observe and describe what they feel (you can see the overlap with mindfulness) in order to help regulate arousal, understand what they feel, and know the reasons why they feel the way they feel. Skills cover ways to reduce emotional suffering through mindfulness and opposite action, and ways to reduce vulnerability to emotional suffering. Skills are quite complex and take practice, feedback, and validation. Since emotions can be tricky, elusive, (and just plain unbearable at times) the emotion regulation content is not something you could “quick learn” and be done with it. Sometimes people are not always aware of how or what they feel in general, and there is nothing pathological about this. It is a process! Knowing oneself and knowing one’s emotions is a lifelong task not subjected to any particular type of disorder, and does not end just because you have had a first exposure to all of the skill content. That is why working together on ways to regulate arousal given varying life circumstances can best be done over time in small group settings that promote cohesion and intimacy.
Distress Tolerance: In order to regulate emotional arousal, finding ways to endure the “I-can’t-stand-it-itis” of painful and extreme emotions is critical. Surviving painful life circumstances well means doing so in a way where people do not lose self-respect, forget their values, give up what is important to them, or react in such a way that makes things worse. Sitting in the fire and not reacting is often harder than picking a fight, poking the fire, making others suffer in order to prove a point, exacerbating pain to let others know how bad things are, undermining a person where it hurts, forcing the university to prove its point, perseverating on being “right”, asking “why me”, or engaging in self-defeating or relationship destroying behaviors. Being willing to tolerate the unknown, be zen with the universe, stop fighting reality, and do what works is skillful practice. We all want things to do our way or to turn out for the best. In reality, a lot of people are suffering a great deal and need everything they can to survive well. Distress tolerance skills encompass not only change strategies (if you can do one thing make it better, why wouldn’t you?), but acceptance and willingness skills. Anyone who has successfully undergone any type of exposure treatment for anxiety knows that the benefit to tolerating anxiety is a decrease in overall anxiety. There is an inherent truth that reality is easier to face once you stop fighting it, thus freeing you up to do what is needed to effectively solve problems.
Interpersonal effectiveness: True to the concept of the dialectical philosophy of DBT, it is better to be effective than it is to be right. The interpersonal skill content encourages readers to identify objectives in situations (what exactly it is you want or don’t want), how the relationship may be impacted, and if self-respect is at stake. Balancing the three helps people to look at natural barriers and consequences of interacting, and enables readers to problem solve the cost/ benefit of ignoring each. For instance, you can ask for what you want at the expense of the relationship, or you can give into a relationship but sacrifice self-respect. The balancing act of relationships is an ongoing challenge for everyone, and some give and take is part of how people stick together, find intimacy, and keep people close. Interpersonal skills also include ways to get out of or decrease contact with toxic or unwanted relationships, set limits, say no, and to identify barriers to doing so. Direct rehearsal in terms of “what to say and how to say it” benefits group members in that they can try out and receive feedback in both verbal and non-verbal forms.
A book of all the DBT skills is available for purchase via this link: https://tinyurl.com/y2qad6sk
Here is a short video of me on YouTube with an overview of the skills: What Are the DBT Skills? DBT Skills with DrReneeHoekstra
The following options are adapted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets (see link under books I recommend on my website) page 10.
Solve the problem if now is a good time to solve it. Most people who avoid solving their problems end up avoiding their problems. When people avoid problems, problems tend to build up or become even worse. It is not a good feeling to know you are avoiding a problem, and solving problems is a practical and understandable path towards reducing distress. Skill building, practice, rehearsal, obtaining feedback, breaking things down into steps, evaluating the effectiveness of the steps, and challenging yourself slightly are all ways to approach problems. Emotional problems generally get us to take action or are telling us to do something about it. Consider this statement: Everything is as it should be unless or until something is done to fix or change it. In other words, don’t sit on your hands if you have some responsibly to speak up or do something about it.
If now is NOT a good time to solve it, don’t make it worse. Now may not be a good time to solve it because extreme emotions get in the way or extreme emotions make your attempts at problem solving ineffective. In this case you may need to work on regulating your moods, which can entail identifying your feelings, figuring out what the threat is or the trigger that sets you off, looking at how you interpret the incident, and coming up with a more adaptive means of interpreting and responding to the event. As Lori Gottlieb reminds us in her recent book, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone. And (of course), skills from the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Handouts and Homework worksheets could be of assistance.
If you could do one tiny thing to make the current situation better, what might it be? Sometimes treating yourself or someone else with kindness, gently avoiding the situation for the time being, doing something to shift gears (self-soothing, exercising, activities, engaging your brain or body differently, or focusing on something or someone else for a while) can make you feel better. People who can’t do anything about a painful life situation generally want to ease their experience. Finding compassion for oneself generally generates an easier time of things, rather than critical self-blame or self-defeating behaviors.
Focusing on accepting and/ or tolerating what you can’t control. Resisting reality, throwing up one’s arms in defeat, doing something to make the situation worse, or staying miserable when there is something you could do to feel better about the situation generally don’t get people unstuck. Acceptance is a hard task and does not necessarily mean approval or passivity. It just means a willingness to bear with the uncertainty or difficulty of what you’re going through.
Psychiatric meds actually do work, and they very well may be working. Psychiatric medications have helped numerous people with many different things, including nightmares, anxiety, symptoms of bulimia, public speaking, mood regulation, paranoid thoughts, and depression.
However, there is one thing that medications will never do, and that is get rid of emotions. Emotions are hard wired, biologically adaptive responses to situations that help people survive. They give people important information about threatening situations and painful circumstances. The allow people to know what matters, what to hold close, what to pursue, what risks to take, and what to avoid. Without emotions we would not have important information about ourselves, our circumstances, our environment, and other people.
People have tried numerous and unsuccessful things to get rid of emotions. This might include drinking, drug use, numbing out, hurting oneself, picking fights, avoiding, sleeping, dominating a conversation, being coercive, smoking marijuana, or being violent. The simple truth is, emotions can’t be eliminated. If they are temporarily eliminated, they come back.
Some people don’t like their emotions because their emotions show up when other people tell them what to do, how to think, how to feel, or how to react. Thus they minimize or inhibit their emotions in these situations because they are trying super hard to fit in, avoid conflict, live up to someone’s standards, please a parent, or survive in their environment. However, this can lead to a very unhappy life and can be very painful.
Sometimes people are very sensitive to emotions, thus they tend to have strong reactions to things that may, to others, not seem like that big of a deal. While this can lead to bigger, out-of-control emotional problems, it is also important to learn how to discern when a threat is actually a threat, vs. when a person develops a fear or phobia about something that is not a threat.
Emotions are often related to eccentric, atypical, or problematic behavior. If you have a behavior that you are trying to stop doing, just consider if not doing that behavior brings up any discomfort, anxiety, or restlessness for you. Asking people to stop doing behaviors such as self-harm, drinking, escalating an argument, threatening suicide, doing a behavior excessively or repetitively, or picking a fight is quite hard. The benefits if these behaviors can sometimes include getting a point across, expressing an emotion, getting taken seriously, reducing anxiety, or getting another to be validating or affirming. Sometimes significant others don’t react at all until another person escalates or flips out, which makes the problem behavior even harder to stop. (After all, it worked!).
If you think your psych meds aren’t working it may be worth asking yourself: What feelings do you have that are intolerable? What do you think your feelings might be telling you? What feelings do you try to ignore? What feelings are trying to get your attention? How willing are you to bear with some of the discomfort of what is going on for you? If you honored your feelings and what they were telling you, what sort of action would you take?
Understanding, naming, managing, and controlling moods are a lot of work. Thankfully, there is are services available that are focused on doing just that- and aren’t focused on dosages or prescriptions. While meds do wonders for people- they are not, thank goodness, the only way of helping a person solve emotional problems. In fact, the entire basis of the group services that I provide help people with all of this- managing mood, understanding emotions, listening to one’s wisdom, and taking necessary steps to tolerate feelings better. Getting rid of what you feel is just not an effective long term strategy for solving emotional problems.
Is this something you find yourself saying? This is something people frequently tell me. Unfortunately a lot of people think this is true. When people think it is true, they often stop trying to figure out the significance of how emotions show up in their life. People will say their emotions come out of the blue, show up for no reason, don’t make any sense, and even create problems in their lives that they wish they didn’t have to deal with.
I actually don’t think that people have no good reasons for feeling they way they feel. In fact, I think reasons are there, but people are often not aware of them. My belief is that emotions show up for a reason, and are important and critical to our existence. However, because emotions can be nebulous, hard to pinpoint, and often elusive; they are sometimes hard to understand and even identify.
All emotions have certain functions. Functions work to serve a purpose or accomplish a task. Functions of emotions include communication, validation, or action. The emotion of sadness, for instance, is an invitation to figure out what is important, grieve losses, search for what is missing, or acknowledge how important something was in our life. Without sadness we would not know what matters, who we love, or what is missing. Sadness gives us important information about all of these things.
Primary emotions are emotions that we have about certain situations, persons, or events in our lives. They are what shows up when stuff happens. They provide valuable information that, if ignored, can create even more problems. Secondary emotions when people have emotions about emotions. For instance, if you feel angry that you are sad, ashamed that you are distressed, or embarrassed that something angers you, you are experiencing a secondary emotion. Secondary emotions generally cause more problems for people because they are ways to judge (or not accept) a primary emotion. When we work really hard to inhibit, hide, minimize, or judge what we feel in the first place, we can create even more problems for ourselves. Sometimes people focus on secondary emotions as a way to avoid focusing on primary emotions. (“If I talk about how angry I am, you won’t really get how much I am hurting.”)
The key point is that people who learn to accept and even value their primary emotions generally have less distress than those who go out of their way to inhibit, hide, or suppress what they feel. If we treat our emotions as useful and valuable means to provide information about ourselves and our environment, the task of addressing emotional pain will be easier. Getting rid of emotional pain because it is uncomfortable doesn’t teach us to be open, present, and accepting of our emotions. While this may seem counter-intuitive, having less shame about how we feel helps us solve the problems of life a bit more easier. (“I am upset because something happened” vs. “Because I am upset I am ashamed, then angry at myself for being ashamed, then guilty for snapping at people because I was angry, then humiliated for how I handled this. Because I have no good reason to be upset.”)
Here are some tips to help you work on your emotions:
- Treat your emotions as useful
- Approach how you feel with curiosity, not judgment
- Assume your emotions are trying to give you important information
- Be willing to experience the intensity and painfulness of emotions
- Observe any action urges that come along with emotions
- Pay attention to how you feel about things more closely
- Be aware that low levels of distress is still stress, and that minimizing it can sometimes result in a blow up later on
Most people who have more than their fair share of depression and anxiety are often seeking ways to decrease depressive and anxiety symptoms. In other words, they want to not be depressed and not have significant anxiety. If the symptoms are extreme or significant the person may start to avoid a lot of things, such as getting out of bed and going to places to that prompt panic attacks. Lifestyles can become restricted and the person may stop going to events or venues where they have the feelings they don’t want. Medications might be pursued, evaluated, and re-evaluated to see if they “work” or they “don’t work”.
If you are a depressed or anxious person, it might be worth considering what it is that you want more of, you would like to have, or what you value in your life. Instead of thinking what do I want to avoid start thinking about what you want to have more of in your life. What is it that would make your life more fulfilling, more engaging, more interesting, more desirable, or more alive? What is actually important to you? Sometimes people are so focused on what they are trying to get rid of they stop pursuing what they want.
Figuring out what you want more of ties in to your values, your energy, and your time. Are you sacrificing what is important to you because you are avoiding negative feelings? Have you stopped seeking activities that give you pleasure, fulfillment, obligation, a sense of contribution, or the opportunity to enhance an important relationship? If depression and anxiety interfere, this is a good time to evaluate what you might have to tolerate to go after more of what you want.
Sometimes, if people have more of what they want, their buffer against depression and anxiety can be tolerated more naturally. Some people get panic attacks at work, but because their job is important to them, they find a way to bear with them. Sometimes people get depressed when important things are lost, but because they have other important and meaningful activities in their life, the depression is bearable.
People who have fulfilled lives often have a wide range of things that give them pleasure, provide a sense of work/ mastery, invest in important relationships, and find new relationships when important ones end. Diversity and stability of the good things can help people shore up more resources when things go south and important jobs and relationships end.
Here are a couple of thoughts on the business of being “wrong.” First, the question itself begs a certain dichotomy to form in a relationship. It implies a one-up, one-down position. It can make one person more powerful, keep another at a distance, or in extreme circumstances serve as an opportunity to belittle or berate. What does being “wrong” imply about the relationship, the importance of keeping a relationship, or the way that people will continue to relate to each other? Is it worth it to damage or hurt a relationship to be “right”? If one person is “wrong”, then how is the relationship handled in the future? How do people move forward?
Next, being “wrong” might be rephrased as being technically inaccurate. If you are responding in a way to that does not match reality in a reasonable sort of way, you may be considered “wrong.” However, in some circumstances this begs the question of differences in opinion, perception, feelings, and agendas. A person can have a valid point of view, see things differently, or see aspects of a situation that another person is not able to see. This can prevent communities from being rigid, thinking “inside-the-box”, refusing to consider alternatives, or being racist or non-diverse in their thinking. Trying to understand the validity in where others come from can help us be more understanding, have better relationships, be more forgiving, and become less “stuck” in the right/wrong dichotomy. If you are technically “wrong”, this also might be your opportunity for self-correction, learning, or growth. Consider teasing out the differences of being “wrong” vs. being technically accurate, and if being “wrong” has anything to do with conflict around perspective, perception, intention, or emotion.
In addition, there is a certain cost to being “wrong.” Everyone at some point in their life has probably had an experience in which they thought something to be true, accurate, or reasonable but found this to not be the case. The cost to being “wrong” is often related to embarrassment, shame, humiliation, or perhaps the loss of trust or leadership. Are you able to correct your actions based on what happened? Can you tolerate the pain of your own humiliation and consider what really matters? If the inability to bear the cost of being “wrong” results in isolation, criticism, withdrawal, and becoming more adamant that you were “right”; you may want to give some thought to what it is costing you in terms of your relationships.
Here are some final questions for you to consider:
- What are your intentions? Sometimes we are in long term work, romantic, or family relationships that must be giving careful consideration.
- What are the intentions of the other person? (Are you sure, or are you assuming? What evidence do you have?)
- What is the true cost of being told you are “wrong”? What do you have to gain by making sure others know you are “right”?
- If you are “wrong,” can you tolerate your embarrassment enough to grow, learn, regroup, or reconsider how you will handle future situations?
- Is it more important to be right than to be effective? (Consider what the relationship means to you and if your own self-respect in handling the situation is on the line).
- Are you unforgiving of other people when they are “wrong”, thus unable to forgive yourself? Is your own criticism preventing you from moving on, getting unstuck, or responding in a way that is potentially painful but perhaps necessary?
Try softening your stance, gently relax your face, and allow your muscles to become loose and less tight. Put a hand over your heart with an intention of lovingkindness, and try repeating the following statements with a tone of voice that conveys self-compassion:
May I bear this pain with kindness to myself
May I safely endure this pain
May I accept the circumstances of my life
May I find peace in my heart
May I let go of what I can not control
May I remember that others are also suffering