Right now, I am very angry. I also feel a lot of guilt and shame about something.
I don’t really feel like getting into it, as that only allows me to ruminate and marinate in the negatives more than I’m willing to do. That’s growth right there!
Instead, I will use this opportunity to prove to myself that it is possible to do something I don’t really feel like doing, even when my emotions might get in the way. For me, in my own words, that means I can feel like shit AND still get something done.
After all, emotions are just emotions, right?
And thoughts are just thoughts – just words strung together in my mind; no more, no less.
I learned these two truths recently in DBT, and let me tell you, at first, I was like “Emotions can’t hurt me? Bullshit. Life is nothing but a jumble of emotions! Aaack!” I almost felt offended, since much of my life (my actions and inactions) has been ruled by my emotions.
That’s when DBT, as well as the calm, accepting, logical manner of the facilitators, took over my brain. Kim (a facilitator and also my current therapist) explained, for the umpteenth time, that there is the tiniest sliver-of-a-moment between initial recognition of a stimulus (a sensation of some kind) and your resulting emotion.
In other words, before I got angry, I first heard something that was said and then I interpreted what they said. The nanosecond after sensing the stimulus (hearing what the person said) but before feeling an emotion is where that most important moment lies.
So, it’s not the actual emotions that hurt me, it’s my interpretation of the event and how I react to it that can keep me miserable.
When I first heard this, I didn’t believe it. I honestly couldn’t fathom there being any way to react to something other than how I did at any given time. I often said I was “ruled by my emotions.”
But a year ago, things started to change: Finally, after a decade of prompting by professionals, I became willing to give DBT a chance. I made a year-long commitment to be in a weekly two-hour group with other people who had trouble regulating their emotions (plus weekly individual therapy sessions).
It took me roughly ten years of therapists, case managers, psychiatrists, etc. softening me up to actually take the dive and sign up.
I’m sorry, did you just say I was “stubborn”? 😉
Maybe it was part stubbornness why I chose not to make that commitment during the prior ten years, but there was something else in play, too.
I had been in therapy on and off (mostly on) since I was fourteen. I was in recovery from addiction (again). I’d done panic disorder groups, intensive outpatient groups, and follow-up groups. I’d been hospitalized for my depression more times than I care to admit. I’d done a round of TMS and even had great results. Hell, I’d had ten ECT treatments in 2005! (And much, much more.)
And here I was, forty-seven years old, and I was still anxious all the time, with short periods of depression, and fearful of all the “what-ifs” (which almost never happen). I still struggled to be happy and relax and enjoy life.
My exact thought was, What could *another* group possibly teach me that I haven’t already heard twenty times??
And that’s where the problem lived. There’s the stubbornness (okay, okay, I admit it!), yes, and another big thing: No one had really ever given me a clear definition of DBT, of what I could expect and what it was like. Thinking I had already heard it all, I dismissed it as just another thing to learn, only for it to not work.
Luckily, I was wrong.
I’VE GOT THE POWER
One thing about this DBT class is that we went through each of the six modules like three times (except the Mindfulness module, the key to DBT – we went through that six times). This means that the skills they were teaching us, which are interconnected, got repeated over and over.
I know, it sounds b-o-r-i-n-g, but there were nine of us in the class, and each week we had different challenges in our lives. So we would bring examples and questions, and Kim and Linda (the other facilitator) would re-explain things we had previously gone over in a new context. So it never actually got boring.
And although I was skeptical at first about this whole emotions-not-hurting-you thing, through the examples, repetition, and different ways of explaining it, I was able – especially during the last few weeks – to get the hang of it. I finally understood it, believed it, got it.
That moment of interpretation is one of the things that was most beneficial about the class, because my interpretation of an event determines how I react to it. Before DBT, I didn’t even know that moment, that opportunity, existed.
I was eventually able to find an alternative interpretation of today’s inciting event. How do you do that? You look at the facts and keep your opinions, assumptions, and judgments out of it.
That’s right – just the facts, ma’am.
That allowed me to reassess the whole incident. Looking at the facts instead of jumping to conclusions or rolling my eyes and telling myself that the other person is just plain wrong is incredibly useful – perhaps my favorite DBT skill. It allows me to, and, in fact, mandates that I look at the situation from a different perspective. This almost automatically creates empathy and a better understanding of where the other person is coming from (it creates a more compassionate point of view).
Back to the moment at hand: When I started this post, I was feeling very angry at someone close to me. I wanted to slam doors and I felt the need to get the extra, uncomfortable, negative energy out of me.
So I did. But just a little.
Okay, I didn’t actually slam any doors, but I also wasn’t very quiet while I was in the kitchen, either. What can I say? You’ve got to let anger out somehow or it will eat at you forever.
Anger is one of the basic emotions we feel. It’s going to happen occasionally, there are no two ways about it. The key lies in how we decide to react to it.
In the past, I would normally have gotten “that look” on my face – jaw set, eyebrows furrowed, lips pursed – and it would have stayed there until I worked the energy out.
Today, though, I allowed myself to experience the anger for a few minutes and then started working on making it more tolerable, because I decided I didn’t want to feel that way all day.
I sat outside for a little while and asked myself, “Okay, how can I feel less miserable?” (I once heard a professional say, “If you can’t make it better, at least don’t make it any worse.” That works, too.)
CeAnne wasn’t around for me to talk it out with, so I was on my own. So I came up with a few goodies that I’ve discovered really do help me (courtesy of the DBT program).
These are the strategies I used to calm down:
- Paying attention to my breath. I didn’t meditate, per se, but I put my focus on my breathing. That way, I wasn’t focused on my anger. I usually close my eyes for this, as that helps me detach from the intensity of the emotion. For each inhalation, I would say to myself, “In”, and each time I exhaled, I would say, “Out”. Simple as that. No fancy “clear your mind of thought” crap (that’s impossible, anyway).
- I kept reminding myself that all I had was that very moment, and I didn’t want to spend it being pissy and judgmental. I decided to take in my surroundings: The trees, the pond, the birds flying around, the noises I heard, tactile sensations, and any smells I noticed. I simply identified everything I sensed without judging it. For instance, instead of saying to myself, “There’s a Charlie Brown-looking tree that’s probably going to die in a week,” I simply said, “There’s a tree.” Instead of judging the invasive, abusive smell of the seal-coating they just did at our complex (which would have added to my pissiness), I told myself that it smelled like seal-coating. It’s a simple concept, really, but it can be really hard to do. But it helps me get out of my shit and it puts me in a mode where I see things for what they actually are (factually), rather than what I judge them to be.
- I changed my posture. At first, I was sitting forward on a patio chair, bent at the waist, hands clasped together tightly, staring at the ground, knees bouncing up and down. As I became aware that I could change my current state of emotion, I adjusted myself. I sat upright with my back straight (which, as a bonus, really helps with my back pain), rested my hands on my thighs (palms up) in an effort to release some of the tension I was feeling, and I looked out at the trees in front of me. That’s when I became able to identify what was around me, which focused my attention on something other than my anger.
Did all of these strategies help me feel better? You betcha they did. It took about 15-20 minutes, but I finally noticed that my face no longer felt tight and ugly (angry). I did consciously try to loosen up my facial muscles to help me get past that last little bit of anger I felt, and that helped, too.
As a result of all this, I was able to reinterpret the event that led to my anger in a more neutral way. Instead of saying to myself, “What the fuck is wrong with this person?” – obviously a judgment! – I said, “This person is just doing what they think is right in this situation.” Clearly, this reinterpretation is more amenable to a peaceful existence – not to mention it allows me to avoid building a resentment toward this person.
Use empathy. See things as they really are, without letting your insecurities get in the way. Each day is made up of a series of moments, and like it or not, we have control over how we react in each of these moments. Of course, if you have never learned the skills needed to do that, it’s damn near impossible. That’s where DBT comes in.
But once you have some healthy coping skills and find that they work, it’s up to you to use them. Sure, sometimes I feel like being pissed off (strange, but true) so I’ll just sit and stew for a little while; but eventually, wisdom and reason take over and I realize it’s better to deal with things than just let them knock and keep me down.
As my newest (and favorite) tattoo says, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”