Dialectical Behavior Therapy Emotion Regulation Skills: Letting Go of Painful Emotions

It’s normal to try to avoid emotions like anger, sadness, depression, fear and shame.  These feelings are incredibly painful to experience.  In order to keep them at a distance, people create walls inside of themselves.  Unfortunately, these internal walls keep the emotion at a distance, but they also keeps the emotion trapped inside of you.  The only way truly to let go of these emotions is to stop walling them off and bring your attention to them in order to observe and describe them.

Observing and describing an emotion while you are experiencing it has two advantages:

Observing and Describing Allows Distance from an Emotion

You may no longer be walling the feeling off or escaping from it completely, but when you observe and describe, without reacting to an emotion, you are still creating some distance between yourself and the feeling.  A little space allows you to better understand the emotion without having to plunge into the midst of the pain.

Exposure to Emotion Reduces Fear of Emotion

Often we avoid emotions because we are terrified of them.  You might be afraid that you can’t tolerate the pain or that you will have the urge to act on the emotion in a negative way.  By observing an emotion as it occurs and describing it without acting on it, you will find that in many cases your fear of the emotion was worse than the emotion itself.  Once you’re less afraid, much of the panic that has become a part of experiencing painful emotions will disperse.

In order to Observe and Describe your emotions you need to:

  • Acknowledge the presence of an emotion when you have it.  You might say to yourself “I’m feeling angry” or “I’m worried that things are going badly and I’m feeling hopeless.”
  • Try to focus on the emotion as a wave, coming and going.  You may need to focus on just the physical sensations of the emotion.
  • Remind yourself that you are not your emotion.  It is not necessary to act on your emotion.
  • Remind yourself that building walls keeps the emotion in, not out.  Instead, accept your emotions and be willing to experience them.

The reality is that most of the time we have emotions for genuine reasons.  No matter how privileged, everyone experiences negative emotions.  Because there is no way to avoid them, it is better to experience them and let them go, than to allow them to continue to exist inside of you.

Linehan M. M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York:  The Guilford Press.

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