My clients come to me with a myriad of issues – relationship struggles; work stress; impulsive behavior; or feelings of anxiety, depression, or anger. For some of them, I begin to wonder over the course of our work together whether their presenting problems are really symptoms of a larger pattern of emotion dysregulation.
There is a question I ask these clients – “Do you feel like you feel your emotions more strongly than others?”
Their faces light up. They sit up straighter; they exclaim, “Yes!” It can be a magical, lightbulb moment.
This moment is usually the first time someone has recognized their overwhelming emotions as a reality, rather than labeling them as “too sensitive” or “dramatic.”
I practice a kind of therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT. In DBT, we believe that problems in clients’ lives are caused by difficulty managing and tolerating intense emotions. We operate under the assumption that these clients’ emotions are overwhelming and they do not have the skills to regulate them. This is not a character flaw, it is simply a lack of skills.
Dr. Marsha Linehan, the developer of DBT, created a hypothesis that emotional vulnerability is caused by the interaction between our biology and our environment. The biological part is that some people are simply born feeling their emotions more often, more intensely, and for longer periods of time.
For example, one person might have a disagreement with a coworker and not have any emotional response at all. Another person might feel slightly annoyed or hurt for a few minutes, and then the emotion will subside. A third person might have the same disagreement and feel intense hurt or anger that does not subside for hours or days. Each of these experiences is real; the difference is how each of our bodies respond to stimuli in our environments.
We might think of people with this emotional sensitivity as “superfeelers.” Any stimulus might prompt a very intense, long-lasting response that can feel intolerable. This experience is a perfectly valid biological phenomenon that some people simply have.
Often, people who experience their emotions in this way are in environments that don’t understand and don’t know how to handle their emotional responses. Private emotional experiences are often dismissed as “overreactions.” If our environment dismisses our emotions as unreasonable rather than teaching us how to regulate them, we never learn the skills we need to do so. We also learn to doubt our emotional experiences and our own instincts.
Trauma can exacerbate this doubt even further. When we experience trauma, especially as children, and are told that our experiences and the emotions they prompt are invalid or not true, our faith in the accuracy of our own emotions lessens even further.
I have a client who experienced a significant amount of abuse in her childhood, both physical and emotional. Every time she expresses sadness about it, she says, “I feel stupid saying this.” She is overcome by a great sense of embarrassment. When we explored it further, we learned that her abuser regularly told her that her reactions to the abuse she experienced were ridiculous. It was no wonder that my client feels shame about her very real feelings – she was repeatedly told that those feelings were wrong.
Invalidating environments might also teach us to inaccurately identify our emotions. The other day, a client told me, “I’m having so much trouble managing my blood sugar.” The more we discussed it, we realized that her parents had repeatedly mislabeled her emotions as “just low blood sugar.” This meant that she learned to regulate hypoglycemia – eating a piece of candy or a sandwich – but she never learned to regulate sadness, or anger, or shame.
Similarly, if we are given too simple of a solution to manage our emotions – “just get over it” or “stop crying” – then we never learn to actually regulate what we’re feeling. We often begin to feel like we “should” intuitively know how to do something when, in reality, no one has taught us the skills we need to do so. Our environment is expecting us to complete an impossible task.
If someone told us to “just” play a complicated song on the piano when we had never been taught anything about music, most people would recognize this as a nearly impossible demand. When we’ve never learned how to manage our emotions, we don’t usually receive the same grace – either from others or from ourselves.
The good news is that, once we understand this emotion dysregulation as a skills deficit rather than something fundamentally “wrong” with us, we can learn how to manage it.
DBT is an extremely effective kind of therapy that offers us tools to manage our emotions, improve our interpersonal relationships, better tolerate stressful situations, and live in the present rather than in our heads. I have seen clients in various states of misery come to DBT, learn skills, and go on to live fulfilling lives with normal amounts of joy and pain.
Sometimes, our emotional experiences are truly overwhelming. Too often, people dismiss these feelings and the reactions they prompt and don’t believe that they are in line with our reality. The good news is that we can learn to manage our emotions and create a life that looks the way we want it to look.
It’s important, too, to recognize that once we learn to harness the power of these intense emotions, they can be a great strength. Our sensitively-calibrated emotional feelers can make us more passionate people. They can mean that we are more empathetic and more sensitive to other people’s emotional experiences and needs. Our emotions can become something we celebrate and value rather than a drain on our lives. We have the power to take hold of these emotions and use them to build a life worth living.
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Eliza Hecht, LMSW, is a therapist based in New York City. Eliza provides individual and couples' therapy using dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), emotionally focused therapy (EFT), and attachment theory. Eliza has received training in DBT from Marsha Linehan's training company, Behavioral Tech. Eliza works with people with Borderline Personality Disorder or people experiencing strong emotions of any type, including anger, anxiety, depression, and suicidality. Eliza also works with couples and individuals trying to improve, find, or maintain relationships and trauma survivors, particularly those who have experienced sexual trauma. Please contact Eliza at [email protected] or visit cmpcnyc.com.