Understanding Emotions and DBT

Understanding Emotions DBT

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all!” -from Rumi, “The Guest House”

One difficult experience that most people understand is how tough it can be when you have an emotion and it doesn’t really make sense why it is there. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and someone asks for something inconsequential and it feels like a huge imposition. What do you do when you have those incongruent emotions? It can be a really difficult experience.

DBT helps us understand that two opposing things can both be completely true. This is called a “dialectic.” On one hand, every emotion you have has something important to tell you. On the other hand, not every emotion fits the facts of the situation, and even when it might fit the facts, letting the emotion steer might not always be the most effective way to manage our lives. In today’s post, I’m going to talk about both sides of that dialectic.

On one hand, every emotion has something important to say. Let’s look at the example where someone asks you for something small and it feels like a huge request. Perhaps you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and your parent asks you for help with something. It is a little thing, but it feels huge and you notice your chest got tight, your face got hot, and your fists clenched. You are angry! The first thing to do is to zoom in and try to examine what emotions undergird that experience. In this situation, it might be that emotions of anger, betrayal, or bitterness underlie the experience of unfairness when something is objectively not very unfair. Anger, betrayal, and bitterness all have important things to say to us. For instance, anger might tell us that someone or something is stopping us from reaching an important goal, or is interfering with what we believe to be right. What might bitterness or unfairness speak to?

At the same time, while every emotion has something important to say, what they’re saying may or may not be about the exact thing that seems to be triggering the emotion. The request that your parent made might not have been a big one, like “Can you please take out the trash?”, but the emotion can make it feel like they asked you to clean the whole house before leaving for school. Zooming back a bit, and looking at your whole day to both welcome and interview the experience with genuine curiosity can be a helpful way to understand our emotions. Specific questions in this situation might be about our sleeping, eating, other things going in in ourselves and our relationships, or other things going on with the rest of the day. While our emotion in the situation is anger, what else is also happening?

Our emotions speak to important parts of our known and unknown experiences. At the same time, we are more than our emotions. Understanding both sides with compassion can help us lead more meaningful and effective lives.