How Up-and-Down Emotions Fuel The Relationship Roller Coaster
You can’t really learn how to improve your interactions with others without learning at least a bit about how to manage your emotions in healthier ways. This is because your emotions can have such a huge influence on your behavior, and of course your behavior is going to have consequences for your relationships. So in this article, you’re going to learn some skills to help you manage your emotions. We’ll look at the importance of being able to name the emotion you’re feeling, with a focus on the main emotions that often get in the way in social situations; the functions your emotions serve; and the connection between your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. In addition, you’ll learn how to use mindfulness and other skills to help you handle your emotions in healthier ways.
You might believe that you already manage your emotions pretty well, and that could be true. But even if that’s the case, I’d still encourage you to read through this article—you can never be too good at managing your emotions, and there’s always the possibility you might learn something new!
Awareness of Your Emotions
Do you ever find yourself in an emotional fog? Do you notice that you tend to ignore or avoid the emotions you’re experiencing, although perhaps you realize that you feel bad or upset? If that’s the case, rest assured that you’re not alone. Nevertheless, it’s not a healthy state to be in, and if you want to manage your emotions effectively—to not let them control you and make you do things you later regret—that’s something you’re going to have to work on changing. The good news is, you can change it. It just takes work, like most everything in life!
Think about it: if you can’t identify what it is you’re feeling, how on earth can you figure out what to do about it in order to help reduce the emotion? And, as we’ll discuss in the next article, it’s when your emotions are intense that it feels like they are “controlling” you. You become reactive and do things you end up regretting, which can have a negative effect on you as well as on other people in your life. So, if you can figure out what emotion you’re experiencing, you can decide if there’s something you can do to reduce the intensity of that emotion. And reducing the intensity makes it more likely that you’ll stay in control and won’t do something you’ll regret later.
Mindfulness of Your Emotions
You’re probably not too surprised to see that mindfulness is the first way you’ll be working on noticing and naming your emotions. Being mindful of an emotion means that, instead of trying to turn it off like you might usually do, you’re instead tuning in to the experience and increasing your selfawareness.
Following is a mindfulness exercise to help you with this; you can do it now as you read through it, and then make sure you come back to it when you’re experiencing specific emotions to help you become more familiar with them. If you’ve been practicing the progressive muscle relaxation, this exercise will come a little easier for you because you’ve already been tuning in to your physical experiences.
Exercise: Noticing Your Feeling
Notice where in your body you feel the feeling. What does it feel like: Is it hot or cold? How big is it? What shape does it take? Is it movin —for example, pulsing, shivering, fluttering—or does it stay still? Factually, without judgment, describe the emotion as you feel it in your body and just allow yourself to experience it.
Of course, an emotion also comes with thoughts, and you can be mindful of these as well—for example, thinking, I’m having anxious thoughts right now, or I’m judging, or These are worry thoughts about the future. Again, notice that this is about just describing or labeling your experience, rather than judging it in some way; for example, These are bad thoughts or I shouldn’t be thinking this.
When you allow yourself to experience an emotion in this way, you’re likely to notice a couple of things—first, that it’s usually not quite as bad as you thought it would be! Painful emotions often become even more painful because of how you interpret them. Take the example of Caitlyn and her social anxiety. The moment she starts to feel anxious, she starts to worry: What if someone notices and starts to tease me? I’m going to look crazy; everyone will think I’m nuts. I have to get out of here or things are going to get a whole lot worse. As you can see, Caitlyn’s thoughts about the anxiety actually increase her fear. If she could be mindful of the experience instead of catastrophizing about it—in other words, trying to predict the future and expecting the worst possible outcome—the anxiety might not disappear altogether, but it wouldn’t get as intense as it usually does.
Something else you’ll likely notice—and might be surprised by—is that the emotion changes. If you can sit with the experience, instead of trying to make the emotion go away like so many people do, you’ll realize that an emotion doesn’t hang around forever. Think of emotion as being like a wave: it builds in intensity, reaches a peak, and then recedes again. And like a wave, it’s impossible for an emotion to stay around forever; it is impermanent and has to change because that’s its nature, like everything else in life.
Naming Your Emotion
Now that you’ve gotten better at allowing yourself to experience your emotion, the next step is to put a name or label on the experience. I find it easiest to help people learn how to do this by first breaking emotions down into four basic categories: mad, sad, glad, and scared. An additional category includes feelings of shame and guilt, which are a bit more complicated and could fit under the category of mad, sad, or scared—or even all three at the same time. I’ve grouped shame and guilt together as the experience of these emotions is very similar. The main difference between the two is that we feel guilt when we are judging ourselves (and think others are judging us) for something we’ve done, and we tend to feel shame when we are judging ourselves (and think others are judging us) for who we are as people. Quite often we feel shame and guilt at the same time.
Once you decide what basic category your feeling fits, you can work on narrowing it down to a more specific emotion. For example, you might be able to identify that you’re feeling mad, but you wouldn’t exactly call your emotional experience “anger” because that seems too strong. So your next step is to look at the following emotion list to see if you can find a word that more closely describes the emotion you’re feeling. This list isn’t all-inclusive, so if you can think of a better word for your emotion that isn’t on the list, go ahead and use it!
- “Mad” Words
- “Sad” Words
- “Glad” Words
- “Scared” Words
- “Shame/Guilt” Words
Now you’re on your way to being able to recognize any emotion and put a name to it, which is fabulous, but it’s also just the start. Remember that being able to name your emotion is essential to helping you do something about it. Let’s look now at the purpose of emotions and why we need them.
The Function of Emotions
Although emotions can often be painful, and as much as we’d like to throw them out the window sometimes, they serve some very important functions, and we do need them. Take a look at these examples, and think about some of the times when you’ve felt strong emotions. What purpose might they have been serving?
MICHAEL: GUILT AND SHAME
Think back to Michael, the school bully. Michael picks on others to help himself feel better, and while this helps somewhat, he also feels guilt and shame about his bullying behavior. In this instance, the guilt and shame serve to alert Michael to the fact that he’s doing something that goes against his morals and values. In other words, these emotions are meant to tell us we’re doing something that is causing us to lose self-respect and the respect of others. And ideally, these emotions cause us to change our behavior.
If we think about anxiety in broader terms, it makes perfect sense: without anxiety—being on high alert when we’re alone in the dark or when we hear a noise we don’t recognize, for example—we would have died out as a species long ago. And although we probably don’t need this emotion quite as much as we used to, it still serves the same purpose. Think back to Caitlyn, who was bullied when she was younger and has developed social anxiety. Caitlyn’s brain has learned that people are something to be frightened of, and in order to protect her, it triggers anxiety whenever she’s around groups of people who are perceived as possible threats. Not very effective for Caitlyn now, but entirely understandable—the role of anxiety is to protect us from possible threats by motivating us to either fight or flee a situation.
If you continue to think about your own emotional responses at times, you’ll probably be able to see the purpose of these emotions; for example, anger often arises to motivate us to work toward change when there’s something we don’t like about a situation.
Sometimes people become more emotionally sensitive, reacting more often and intensely than necessary, and reacting more intensely than would typically be warranted in the situation; for example, Carter became so intensely angry that he broke the band’s equipment. But even if an emotion seems to be overly intense, you can usually identify its function. Carter was obviously angry for a reason; since anger comes to motivate us to make changes, there was likely something happening that Carter didn’t like and that he wanted to change, although he didn’t go about it in a very effective way.
So far you’ve learned how to be mindful of your emotions, which is also helping you learn to name them. And you’ve learned that there’s no point in trying to get rid of your emotions—that you in fact need them, and they serve a purpose. So now, let’s look at one of the reasons that managing emotions can be quite difficult at time —they’re often just plain old confusing!
The Connection Between Emotions, Thoughts, and Behaviors
How are you feeling right now? Hopefully you didn’t say to yourself, Bored! But if you did, “bored” is indeed an emotion; it could come under either the “mad” or “sad” category. Maybe you said, Like this is really hard work! or I feel like I’m never going to get this. If you did, it’s important to be aware that these aren’t emotions—they’re thoughts. Think back to our four basic categories earlier in this article: mad, sad, glad, and scared; these are the emotions. So you might be mad or sad at the thought that you need a book or an article like this one, or you might be feeling scared about the thought that you won’t be able to use the skills or that they won’t help.
My point here is that we often confuse emotions with thoughts, and even with behaviors. For example, people will often express the belief that feeling angry isn’t acceptable because it hurts others. But that belief isn’t accurate: I can feel angry without anyone else even knowing I feel angry. It’s not the feeling that is hurtful to others, but how I might choose to behave because I feel angry that might be hurtful to others. To help you understand this, take a look at the following diagram that illustrates how our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors can each influence the others.
Our emotions will have an effect on our thoughts, and our thoughts will influence how we feel; our emotions will affect our behaviors, and our behaviors will also influence how we feel; and our thoughts and behaviors will both affect one another as well. Because of the connection between these three areas, we know that if we make changes in one area, the others will also be affected, and we can use this knowledge consciously to help us move in a healthier direction. (More on this shortly!)
Because emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are so intertwined, and because they often happen so quickly and automatically, it’s very easy to confuse them, and especially to confuse emotions with thoughts. For example, you might think I shouldn’t have to be doing all of this extra work just to have normal relationships! and confuse this thought with the feeling of anger. Or, you might have the thought What if I can’t do this? and think this is anxiety. Although the thoughts here are obviously very related to these emotions, they are separate—the thought is not the emotion, and vice versa. So in order to manage your emotions more effectively, your next task is to practice differentiating between your emotions, your thoughts, and your behaviors. When someone asks you how you’re feeling (or better yet, as you practice asking yourself this every day!), really think about it and work on putting a label on it, rather than just saying “fine,” “okay,” or even “awful.” Mindfulness, of course, will also help with this. As you’re noticing your feelings as described in the exercise at the beginning of this article, you can practice by saying to yourself, This is the feeling of anxiety, and This is a thought about the future, so that you’re clearly identifying one as an emotion and the other as a thought.
Another thing to keep in mind as you practice differentiating is that a thought is just a thought, and an emotion is just an emotion; neither are facts, even though we often take them as truth. For example, just because Rebecca thinks she’s unlovable, and that she has to keep giving things to and doing things for people or they won’t want to be her friends anymore, doesn’t mean that’s actually true; it’s just her thoughts and feelings about the situation. Likewise, just because Caitlyn feels anxious doesn’t mean there’s anything threatening her safety. This is a trap we all fall into at times: believing our thoughts and feelings to be reflections of reality. The problem is that we then end up behaving as though our thoughts and emotions are facts, and that behavior can often get us into trouble. Think about everything Rebecca does for her friends based on her emotions and feelings rather than on reality, and the trouble this gets her into. So remember: it’s just a thought, and it’s just an emotion. Just because they’re there doesn’t make them true.
Connected to this is the idea that just because you have a thought and an emotion doesn’t mean you have to follow your urge, which is the combination of thought and emotion that often causes you to act. We’ve looked at the functions emotions serve, and that they’re messages to take some kind of action (for example, anxiety tells you that something might be dangerous and you should get ready to fight or to run). But since you know that emotions and thoughts aren’t facts, it only makes sense that you need to evaluate the urges that come along with those thoughts and feelings, rather than just acting on them. All of us have reacted from emotion at some point, and quite often it’s not very helpful; when we act on an urge without really evaluating it, we often end up regretting our behavior. More on this when we get to skills!
Now that you know a bit more about emotions and their importance, as well as how we often get in our own way of acting in our best interests in the long run, let’s take a look at some specific ways emotion can make social interactions difficult.
How Emotions Get in the Way of Relationships
Have you ever noticed that sometimes your emotional experience gets in the way of your ability to be effective? You might even know what you want to say or how you want to act, but the emotion you’re experiencing makes it impossible for you to do what you planned. Here we’ll take a look at some of the painful emotions we experience and how they sometimes hijack us and make it difficult for us to be effective in relationships.
Social anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems, so if you have it, you’re not alone! People with social anxiety have an intense fear of being in social situations. This problem is different for everyone to an extent: Sometimes a person with social anxiety can manage social events if she knows the people she’s with. Sometimes she can manage to go out with only one friend at a time without feeling a lot of anxiety. Some people with social anxiety won’t have friends at all because the anxiety has completely prevented them from engaging with others. Often the person with social anxiety fears that others are judging her or won’t like her, or that she’ll make a fool of herself in front of others (leading to their judging her). In other words, the person with social anxiety catastrophizes, thinking about the future and imagining the worst thing that could happen in that situation. And then, of course, she assumes that that’s what will happen.
A person with social anxiety tends to avoid many situations because of the anxiety, which means that her life will usually be quite limited. Is this you? Do you avoid meeting new people because you fear they won’t like you or will make fun of you and judge you? Caitlyn not only avoids meeting new people but also doesn’t have any friends because of her fear of being hurt by others. Even though we can understand this fear, given her history of being bullied, think of how lonely Caitlyn’s life must be with no friends to share things with. (Maybe you don’t have to imagine this.)
Remember, anxiety serves a purpose: it comes up to protect us. But remember, too, that sometimes people are more sensitive, and emotions like anxiety get triggered when they really have no reason to be triggered. So even though Caitlyn’s anxiety makes sense given her past experiences, it no longer makes sense given what’s going on in her life now.
If you are being bullied now, tell someone. We are much more aware of bullying and how serious it is than we used to be, and there are many services available for people who are in these kinds of situations, but you have to let someone know what’s happening first and ask for help. There are also skills in this article that will help you manage the emotions around what you’re experiencing, so keep practicing and keep reading.
If being bullied in the past is preventing you from moving on and developing friendships in the present, we’ll be getting to more specific skills shortly that will help with your anxiety. And in the meantime, make sure you continue practicing mindfulness, since living in the present moment will reduce the anxiety and help you be more effective in all areas of your life.
Something I often tell my clients who have social anxiety is that the world does not revolve around you. To clarify, I mean this in a factual way, not in a judgmental way. And, to clarify even further, your world does revolve around you, just like the world of the person beside you on the bus revolves around her. And the person sitting next to you in the cafeteria? His world revolves around him. Get it? Most often, people aren’t looking at you and the pimple on your chin. They’re not thinking about your hair, your makeup, or your clothes; they’re thinking about themselves, and about their hair, makeup, and clothes! Sometimes, putting this into perspective can be a helpful tool to reduce your self-consciousness. Do an experiment: the next time you have even an inkling that someone you trust is thinking something about you, ask what that person is thinking. Chances are it doesn’t involve you at all, and if that person was thinking about you, it probably wasn’t in the negative way you were assuming.
You’ve seen, through the example of Carter, that anger is another painful emotion that can often hijack you and get in the way of your ability to be effective in relationships. Because anger is such an energizing emotion, and the urge that accompanies it is often to lash out in some way, it can be difficult to not act on the urges that follow. Can you think of a time when you knew what might be effective for you, but you allowed your anger to control you instead? When your emotions take over and you act from your anger, you often push people away (like Carter did with Merrin and his friends). Even though acting on the emotion might feel satisfying at the time, it alienates others and often results in your being isolated and lonely.
Sometimes anger is also a kind of defense mechanism. If you keep yourself cloaked in anger, you’ll be less likely to get hurt yourself. If you’re always in attack mode, ready to hurt others, others will be less likely and less able to hurt you first. So if you find that anger is present in your life on a regular basis, you may need to do some work figuring out (on your own or with some professional help) what the purpose of the anger is before you can start to work on letting it go. The good news is that many of the skills in this article will help reduce your anger as well as help you learn to express it more effectively when it does arise.
I mentioned earlier that sadness often leads to withdrawal and isolation, and this can have obvious negative consequences for your relationships. If you’ve experienced intense sadness—or even depression—that’s led you to isolate yourself, have you noticed what this does to your relationships? Sometimes people hang in there; even when you don’t return your best friend’s calls or you continually cancel plans with her, she knows that this isn’t you, that there’s something preventing you from being her best friend right now. But many people don’t see this, and that means that you may end up losing many relationships because your sadness gets in the way.
You might also have noticed that, even when you can still maintain friendships to some extent when you’re feeling sad for long periods, the way the sadness influences your thinking can also push people away. People can only be around the negativity that often accompanies sadness for so long before they start choosing to limit their contact with you. Although it’s not your fault—you’ve been hijacked by your sadness—the emotion that’s bringing you down also brings the people around you down and ends up getting in the way of your relationships.
Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are two other emotions that tend to make you want to withdraw from others and hide away—especially shame, because it has to do with how you feel about yourself as a person. When you’re only feeling guilty, you can at least rectify the problem and the guilt will dissipate; for example, you can apologize to a friend for having said hurtful things and move on, because your guilt was about your behavior. But when you’re feeling ashamed, how you think about yourself as a person is affected by the behavior you engaged in. In other words, apologizing for the hurtful things you said will cause the guilt to dissipate, but when you’re ashamed of yourself, the feeling of worthlessness that stems from the behavior doesn’t disappear so easily.
The feeling of shame can be so intense and distressing that it convinces you that your thoughts of being worthless, unlovable, and so on are true, and when you think of yourself in these ways it limits your ability (and desire) to engage with other people. What if they find out who you really are, and what you’re really like as a person? Often people won’t take this risk, and they isolate themselves. Sometimes the feeling of shame can become so intense that the urge to isolate and withdraw is taken to the extreme, with thoughts of suicide. If this is ever something you experience, please talk to someone—you don’t have to go through this alone, and you can get through this with help.
Acting Opposite to Your Emotion
At this point you have a basic understanding of what you need to know about emotions in order to start practicing more specific skills to help you manage them. Remember the connection between your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors? Remember how, if we make a change in one area, the others will be affected, and that we can use this knowledge consciously to help move our emotions, thoughts, or behaviors in a healthier direction? Well, here’s the DBT skill that helps you do that: acting opposite to your emotion. This skill has you identify the emotion you’re experiencing and the urge that’s attached to it, and then act in a manner opposite to that urge. The idea is that, when you act on your urge, the intensity of the emotion you’re experiencing increases. Think about it: If you’re feeling angry and you yell at someone or start an argument, does your anger go down? No, it stays the same or even increases. When you’re feeling anxious about doing a presentation at school and you avoid it by pretending to be sick that day, does your anxiety go down? No, it probably goes up. So if acting on your urge increases the intensity of your emotion, doesn’t it make sense that doing the opposite of the urge will help the emotion go down? Let’s take a look.
Michael Acts Opposite to His Emotion
Michael’s mood has been lower than usual lately, and as a result he’s been spending a lot of time by himself in his room. He just doesn’t feel like being around other people, and spending time with his parents kind of makes things worse since they don’t really seem to understand him. Michael and his therapist have talked a lot about this, and with his therapist’s help he’s come to realize that isolating himself like this actually makes things worse. He knows that even though he doesn’t feel like being social when he’s down, once he gets out and spends time with others, he always ends up feeling better, even if only a tiny bit. So he texts his friend Kevin, and they agree to meet up to see a movie.
Michael’s depression doesn’t necessarily disappear, but he’s providing himself with the distraction of spending time with Kevin and watching a movie, rather than staying alone in his room, where he likely would’ve just been thinking about how awful things are and making himself feel worse in the long run.
Like Michael, when we feel depressed we usually have an urge to isolate ourselves. When we’re anxious, the urge is to avoid or escape from whatever is causing the anxiety. Quite often, we go along with these urges because it feels like the “right” thing to do, but as mentioned earlier, acting on our urges usually just intensifies the emotion we’re experiencing and might bring up other emotions, too. For example, if you’re feeling angry and you act on the urge to yell at the person you’re angry with, you’re fueling your anger and probably not acting in a way that’s consistent with your morals and values, which can trigger feelings of guilt and shame. Acting on the urge to isolate yourself when you’re feeling depressed usually makes you feel more alone, which feeds into your sadness. And acting on the urge to avoid situations because you’re feeling anxious only increases your anxiety in the long run, and probably triggers other emotions like sadness and frustration because you can’t do the things you’d like to do.
It’s important to know that acting opposite to your emotion is a skill you should use only when it’s not helpful for you to continue feeling that specific emotion. Remember, emotions serve a purpose, and we’re not trying to stuff them or ignore them. But when an emotion has delivered its message—in other words, you know how you feel about a situation and you’re ready to do something about it—the emotion itself sometimes gets in the way of your ability to act effectively. When an emotion remains intense, it can be difficult to get yourself to act in healthy, helpful ways. For example, if you’re feeling anxious about going to a party, the intensity of your anxiety can get in the way of your meeting new people and having a good time. So the thing to keep in mind with this skill is that, if the emotion you’re experiencing is no longer helpful and you want to reduce it, then act opposite to it. Look at the following chart to see how you might use this skill with painful emotions.
A last point about using this skill with anger: Anger doesn’t just affect your actions; it also affects your thoughts about a situation, usually in the form of judgments. So when you’re practicing this skill and trying to act opposite to your anger, you also need to think opposite, or in a nonjudgmental way. In other words, when you’re feeling angry with your mom, it’s not enough to gently avoid her; you also have to work on not ranting about her in your thoughts. Thoughts like She’s so mean and she never lets me do anything will keep the anger going.
Your Next Steps
Of course, you’re going to be practicing the skill of acting opposite to your emotion that you’ve just learned. And, of course, you’re still going to be practicing mindfulness formally—doing your breathing exercises, practicing your progressive muscle relaxation mindfully. And informally, you’ll be bringing mindfulness to activities throughout your day so that you’re more aware of yourself and what’s happening around you, noticing when you’re living in the past or the future and bringing yourself back to the present, and practicing acceptance of whatever you happen to find in the present moment.
In addition, continue using the exercise you learned at the beginning of this article, which has you being mindful of your emotions. Again, even if you think you’re already able to identify and name your emotions, this exercise will help you to increase your awareness, which is always a good thing!
It will also be helpful for you to practice mindfulness of the positives in your life. Every day, write down just one positive thing that happened. It doesn’t have to be anything huge, like making a new friend—although imagine how great that would be! Rather, focus on the small things: Say the sun’s shining today, or it’s Saturday and you don’t have to go to school. Maybe it’s the five minutes you spent mindfully petting your dog or cat, or the movie you watched that made you smile (even if it was only briefly!). The idea here is that the more you focus on something, the bigger it gets. If your focus is all about the negative, then that’s what becomes big in your life. Instead, we want you focusing on the positives so that those grow in number and become more a part of your life. And they will, with time and practice.