August 15, 2016
By Lisa Linardatos, PhD, Psychologist
Have you ever felt so strongly about something, but then it turned out not to be true? Has your “emotion brain” ever clashed with your “rational brain”? Or maybe you have witnessed a friend fall madly in love with someone who clearly is an illogical choice? In therapy, I often help people identify what can be referred to as “unjustified emotions” (from Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy). Unjustified emotions are emotions that don’t fit the facts. For example, feeling like you’re incompetent and the worst at your job when in fact you’re a solid employee, feeling like something terrible is going to happen when the probability is low, feeling like a friend is mad at you when really they’re just super-busy and forgot to respond to your text, feeling like you’ve gained a ton of weight after eating one big meal even though that’s actually not possible, etc. When I point out to a client that an emotion they are experiencing may be unjustified, I’m often understandably met with a, “Yeah, but, Lisa, it feels so true.” Fair enough. How can we ignore an emotion that feels so real, and should we? In this blog post I’ll explore how we can “listen to” our emotions, but then thoughtfully decide what to do about them.
Why do we have emotions in the first place? Emotions serve important functions and give us information. For example, they allow us to react quickly in important situations, and they let us know if a situation is scary, dangerous, unfair, etc. Sometimes, however, they may not be accurate, but we treat them as if they’re facts anyways. The stronger the emotion, the more likely we are to assume they’re true. Although it’s always good to pay attention to our emotions, it’s possible they might lead us astray, so it’s also good to explore where they’re coming from and check them with facts. Imagine a situation recently when you felt a negative emotion. Perhaps you felt judged, like a failure, or were experiencing anxiety or anger. For this exercise, try to entertain the idea that this emotion may be completely inaccurate, a little accurate, medium accurate, mostly accurate, or completely accurate. Once you have the situation and emotion in mind, read through these tips on how to check your emotions with facts, adapted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual (2014).
Our emotions might be “too big” for a situation because we’ve had negative experiences in the past where this emotion was justified. For example, we might often feel like people are being dishonest or are going to betray us because this actually happened to us at some point in our lives. Our brains are really great at remembering negative experiences. Another reason for unjustified emotions is that maybe our big emotions have been positively reinforced. For example, maybe important people in our lives only really listen to us when we have big emotions. Or maybe our emotions were often invalidated growing up; for example, being told we shouldn’t feel a certain way (“You’re being too sensitive”; “You have no right to feel anger because you’re a spoiled kid.”). If we’ve grown up in an invalidating environment we may not have the skills to identify and regulate our own emotions (Linehan, 2014). Last but not least, maybe we haven’t eaten enough or slept enough that day, maybe we’re not taking care of our bodies or exercising, or maybe we’ve been using substances such as alcohol or other drugs. We often overlook these behaviours when it comes to managing our emotions, but sleeping well, eating well, exercising, and avoiding excessive substance use do wonders for our emotional health. It’s important to remember that there is always an understandable reason for why our emotions might not fit the facts and resist the urge to judge ourselves for having a certain emotion. If we judge ourselves for having a certain emotion, we’re adding another layer of negative emotion on top of the initial emotion, making us feel worse and making it more difficult to identify what we’re feeling. For example, if we feel angry, but then judge ourselves for feeling angry (“I shouldn’t feel angry, look at me indulging in my first-world problems.”), then we’ll feel shame or guilt in addition to the anger.
Once we’ve determined our emotions might not fit the situation, what do we do? How do we accept a difficult emotion but not react to it? Acceptance of difficult emotions means we acknowledge their presence, let them be (i.e., not push them away or avoid them), and make a deliberate decision about how to react. Acceptance does not mean we like the emotion or that we are helpless to it, but that we are committing to deliberately changing how we typically pay attention to our emotions (see Zindel Segal’s blog post: Three Ways Acceptance Helps You Work with Difficult Emotions). To facilitate acceptance of emotions, we can take what is known as an “observers’ stance” (e.g., Hayes et al. 1999), which is paying attention to an emotion (thought, or physical sensation) in a neutral way, as if it were something separate from us, thereby giving ourselves the time and space to notice it, be with it and not push it away, while decreasing our chances of getting overwhelmed by it. It is about seeing the emotion for what it is, observing it without judgement and with curiosity, and “making room” for it until it passes. Given we can’t actually see our emotions, in order to “observe” them it is helpful to get creative and use some imagery, especially imagery that allows us to have some space from the emotion and time to observe it. Try this exercise: Think of a time recently when you felt disappointment and try to really remember the event, where you were, who you were with, what your surroundings looked like, and what you were thinking and feeling. Take a few moments to really remember the situation and the emotion. Once you are feeling the feeling, imagine you are standing at the top of a mountain, and your emotion of disappointment is like a leaf on a stream far down below. You watch that emotion way down below coming and going. Keep watching it pass by you way down below on the stream, coming and going. Don’t judge the emotion, but be curious about it. For example, ask yourself, what is this emotion telling me? Where did it come from? Keep watching the emotion floating on the stream way down below you until you feel like it’s passed by or until you feel like you’ve fully acknowledged it. By attending to your emotion in this way, you’re not turning away from it or avoiding it, but you’re giving yourself some time and space to observe the emotion without quickly reacting, thereby lessening your chances of behaving in a destructive or unhelpful manner. For more useful imagery, check out this handout: Facing Your Feelings – Module 2: Accepting Distress. Noticing and describing where the emotion is happening in our bodies is another way to access the observers’ stance. Each specific emotion tends to be associated with typical biological changes and experiences. For example, anxiety often comes with a racing heart and maybe tightness in our chest, whereas anger might come with feeling hot and a clenched jaw. Describing where our emotions are happening in our bodies gives us that third person perspective that allows us to take the time and space to thoughtfully observe our physical sensations without feeling overwhelmed. To practice getting into the observers’ stance with physical sensations, try this body scan meditation.
An important part of acceptance of difficult emotions (and their associated physical sensations), but perhaps the most difficult part, is learning to pay attention to them with kindness and a gentle curiosity. This might sound silly or strange, right? Why would we pay attention to our emotions with kindness and curiosity? By being kind and curious, we change our relationships to our negative emotions, we feel less threaten by them, we prevent the reinstatement of old habits, and we’re therefore more likely to respond to them in a way that’s helpful and healthy. So, when you notice you’re feeling a negative emotion, try to acknowledge it and label it, and notice where it’s happening in your body, without judgement and with kindness. For example, you might nicely say to yourself, “Ah, anger is here. I notice it in my chest. It’s tense and hot.” vs. “I’m so stupid for feeling this way; I need this to go away right now.”
Instead of thinking these physical sensation are terrible and such a pain, through acceptance and the observers’ stance we’ll start to form a different relationship with them, seeing them for what the are, a part of our emotion and experience, something that will come and go. Trying to escape, avoid, or deny negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations is problematic because the struggle against these negative internal experiences often leads to more distress (“I can’t stand this.” “I must get rid of it now.” “I’m stupid to think like this.”), and maybe even unhelpful behaviours like binge eating or excessive drinking. Plus, emotions give us information, so if we’re not acknowledging them we’re potentially missing important information. For example, if we don’t acknowledge our anger and shove it away we may neglect to see that a situation is unfair and thus we might miss an opportunity to change it. Also, as mentioned earlier, the more we’re able to “be” with our emotions (as well as thoughts and physical sensations) in a non-judgemental way and hopefully with kindness, the more we will learn that we can have unpleasant internal experiences and still be okay, and move away from our habitual and destructive ways of responding. Last, negative emotions are in fact part of a meaningful life, so learning to be with them is an important factor in building a life worth living. For more on this, check out my colleague Brent’s blog post for a discussion on how living a meaningful life includes negative, unpleasant emotions.
I think it’s common to think our emotions are just happening to us, and we don’t have much choice in what we do about them. Luckily, as humans, we have the ability to observe ourselves in the third person, to think about our thinking, to think about our emotions, and to make a well thought-out decision about what we want to do with them. This is easier said than done I know, but just like learning any new skill, accepting and getting into the observers’ stance with our emotions is a skill that can be practiced and learned. Instead of avoiding or fighting against our emotions, we can learn how to welcome them into our lives and act on them when we choose.
The Linehan Institute (Dialectical Behavior Therapy resources)
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT® skills training manual, second edition. Guilford Publications.