Written by Kristin Barton Cuthriell, M.Ed., MSW, LCSW
When you become angry, lonely, frustrated, impatient, or hurt, do you have a pattern of acting out in a way that usually results in regret?
Many people do not differentiate between emotion and action. For them, they are both part of the same package. When I feel A; B happens. They feel as if their emotions control their actions. By thinking about emotion in this way, they have given their power away and have surrendered all control.
Being able to better regulate emotion and separate the feeling from the reaction takes practice. Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, created skills that have proven to be effective in this area. Take a look.
Practice being mindful of your current emotion without reacting
- Identify how you are feeling
- Observe what you are feeling
- Describe what you are feeling without using judgement
Practice opposite to emotion action
- You feel like yelling, so you lower your voice
- Your every impulse wants to lash out and hit someone, so you walk away.
- You feel self-destructive, so you pray, exercise, or ask for help.
- Tell yourself that it is okay to feel the way that you feel. Remember that it is the reaction, not the emotion, that often gets you into trouble.
Practice letting the event go
- Sometimes you need to act as if you are a teflon pan and allow the event to slip right off of you. Don’t attach to it. The problem may belong to the other person; you do not have to make it your own. For example, someone cuts you off in traffic or refuses to let you in the right lane as you approach your exit. You do not have to choose to make it your problem. You can let it slip off of you and go about your day, or you can choose to react. Note that once you react, you may then really have a problem. Do you really want to give that much control to the person who cut you off? Are you going to allow them to ruin your day, because it is not them that will ruin your day? It is you, if you decide to attach to the event or to your temporary emotion.
- Find ways to distract yourself until you feel better. The more you think about an upsetting event, the bigger it becomes.
Ride the wave of emotion
- You will not feel like this forever. Your short-term fix, may create long-term problems.
Reduce your vulnerability: You will be less likely to react in an explosive way if you practice basic self-care.
- Treat physical illness: Take medications as prescribed and make doctor’s appointments.
- Eating: Eating too little or too much makes you more vulnerable to explosion.
- Avoid mind altering drugs: When using alcohol or nonprescription drugs, you have surrendered all control and handed it over to the substance.
- Sleep: Too little or too much sleep will increase irritability which makes you more vulnerable to emotional upset.
- Exercise: Get at least twenty minutes each day. You will be able to let things go much easier if you consistently exercise.
- Set and achieve small goals so that you feel a sense of accomplishment. Feeling competent reduces vulnerability.
For these skills to be effective, they must be practiced over and over again. Throughout the process, celebrate times when you are able to observe and describe an emotion nonjudgmentally without acting on it in a harmful way. Celebrate progress, not perfection, and you will get there.
A client once said, “My emotions don’t have arms, legs, or a mouth; they do not get me into trouble, it is my reactions that do that.”
*Dialectical Behavior Therapy consists of four modules; mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. While it is an evidence based practice for the treatment of borderline personality disorder, you do not have to carry that diagnosis in order to benefit from DBT. It has shown to be effective in treating individuals who have poor impulse control, low distress tolerance, and poor interpersonal relationship skills. DBT skills are also taught in many anger management programs. DBT is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.