Emotion: how much is too much and how much is not enough?

How does trauma, neglect or terrible bad luck cause emotional sensitivity? Your body moves more quickly into panic mode, your shame fires up more rapidly, the neural architecture underpinning sadness is ever-ready to fire in response to a cue. It all makes perfect sense.

But it is not enough for therapists to understand the ‘how’. Relief comes in many forms and clients attach to the ones that work the quickest – medication, alcohol, over-sleeping, harming, starving, or contemplating being dead. Each one is like a soft pillow of heather to someone exhausted from a fleeing a war zone. A welcoming bed but one perched on the edge of a cliff.

The most caring response might seem to just get the painful emotion down, which is why tharapists and clients come to over-rely on distraction techniques. And within that response is the terrible risk of dismissing, denying or just ignoring the valid part of emotion, the bit that tells us something important; a problem that needs to be solved, an insult that needs to be addressed, an argument in which the client had good cause to be agrieved.

To help people live a more emotionally authentic life we have to teach the skill of properly regulating emotion. That means understanding the emotion we are currently experiencing, deciding how much of it is valid, and then downregulating only the excess. We are not trying to escape emotion, but to learn the techniques that move it up and down the intensity scale. We can teach our clients the skill to use the whole range effectively.

If someone doesn’t know how to lower an emotional response if it they will naturally fear it. But if down-regulation is over-used the person is simply dismissing or denying their feelings. They begin to feel invisible. The crucial question is not, “how can we get this down?” But, “how much do we want to keep?” or even, “do you feel you need to be more angry about this?” Once a person can be in an emotionally provocative situation and titrate their response – internally and externally – to touch their own truth, we have done our job.

It takes time to educate and coach the regulatory mechanisms. My latest book ‘Regulating Emotion the DBT Way’ has all the tips you need, including a chapter on every emotion, it’s unique form and function, a session transcript of how to coach its regulation, and some tips on how not to inadvertently invalidate the valid part of it. Join the discussion, ‘How much is too much, and how much is not enough?.

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