Emotion Regulation is the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy module that teaches how emotions work. It provides skills to help manage emotions instead of being managed by them, reduce vulnerability to negative emotions, and build positive emotional experiences.
The best way to get rid of painful and negative emotions is to let them go. Letting go of emotional suffering associated with negative emotions is not the same thing as letting go of the emotions themselves. While we can’t really let go of the emotions themselves, letting go of the suffering is a process that we can learn.
Letting go does not mean pushing away or stifling the emotions. The emotions are valid and represent experiences and interactions that were or are painful.
In learning to let go of your emotional suffering, you must use the mindfulness skills that you have practiced before, the observe and describe skills. You get some distance from your emotions, to stand back and observe them. If you can get distance, you can see them more clearly. By looking at your emotions, you are exposing yourself to them, by looking and describing, not necessarily acting on them, and not being swallowed by or overwhelmed by them.
Try getting some distance from a painful emotion that you have. Put it over there and look at it, maybe as if it were on a screen or a stage. Describe in words what the experience of that emotion is like. This also helps to give you distance and perspective.
Acceptance is not Approval
In DBT, we talk a lot about the dialectic (as in Dialectical). This means looking at two different ideas, principles, interpretations, or points of view and balancing them against each other. Then you may choose one or the other, or decide to live with both or some mixture of both.
Some examples of dialectics are:
- changing vs. not changing
- good vs. bad
- wise mind vs. emotion mind
- talking vs. being silent
- acceptance vs. approval
When you learn to accept your negative emotions, you begin to let go of the hold they have on you and the suffering that they cause you. Accepting your emotions, letting yourself realize that you have these emotions and that they are real and valid, is not approving of your suffering, or approving of the events that preceded these emotions. You don’t have to approve of our negative emotions as you learn to accept them. You can choose acceptance without choosing approval. That’s the dialectic.
This can be challenging. It can feel like accepting that you have these terrible, painful feelings means that it is okay that you feel so much pain. But when you understand that you do not have to approve, that you only have to let the feelings in and acknowledge that they are there, accepting them in that way, it is not such an impossible process.
Steps for Letting Go of Painful Emotions
Observe Your Emotion
Acknowledge that the emotion exists. Stand back from it and get yourself unstuck from it. You may find it helpful to concentrate on some part of the emotion, like how your body is feeling, or some image about it. Practice the What Skill of observe. Don’t let yourself get sucked into the emotion. Keep it just far enough away that you can observe without getting swept away.
Experience Your Emotion Fully
Try to experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going. Don’t try to push the emotion away. This makes it bigger, and increases your suffering. Don’t reject the emotion. At the same time, do not hang onto your emotion. Don’t rehearse it over and over to yourself. Don’t escalate it or make it bigger. Sometimes when you feel a very painful emotion, like anger or a deep grief, you hold onto it, or intensify it, making it stronger or bigger, in your efforts to deal with it or to give it your full attention. Try not to do this. Just let it be however it is.
Remember: You Are Not Your Emotion
You are not your emotion. Your emotion is part of you, but it is not all of you. You are more than your emotion. Do not necessarily act on the emotion. Having the emotion does not mean you have to act. You may just need to sit with the emotion. Often acting can intensify and prolong the emotion. Remember times when you have felt different in order to remind yourself that emotions change and you are capable of variation. Notice other feelings you are having at the same time you are feeling the strong emotion.
Respect, Love Your Emotions
Practice loving your emotions. This can be a difficult concept. Why would you want to love painful emotions? Don’t judge your emotion. It is not good or bad. It is just there. There are no bad emotions, just emotions. Anger, fear, sadness are all painful emotions, but they are not bad. Everyone has them, and they are just as valid as the happy emotions. Practice a willingness to experience and radically accept your emotion. Talk to yourself and your emotions kindly.
This is difficult stuff. It takes time and lots of practice to get the hang of it, and more practice to get it to be a natural response to pain for you. Pick one small thing to try, and try it in a simple situation. Try using the above steps in the following scenarios:
- How you feel when the mail is late
- How you feel when you lose a favorite piece of jewelry
- How you feel if you get scared watching a horror movie
- Create your own!
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