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Section 13 - Describing and Managing Your Feelings and Emotions

Learning Center - DBT Therapy Training

Describing and Managing Your Feelings and Emotions

Emotions describe us; what we're feeling inside. Remember from the EJECT model from Section 1, emotions stem from our thoughts. For centuries, theorists have argued over what the basic emotions are. Theories range from two (happy and sad) to eleven (anger, aversion, courage, dejection, desire, despair, fear, hate, hope, love, sadness). In DBT, however, we refer to six basic emotions:

  • love
  • joy
  • anger
  • sadness
  • fear, and
  • shame

While there are roughly 500 words in the English language to describe emotions, these all fall under one of these six categories. For example, we often describe joy using the words delight, blissful, ecstatic, and thrilled. When it's difficult to find the emotion, pull out this list and find the closest one.

Primary and Secondary Emotions

To further complicate reading our emotions, we often feel several emotions at the same time. They may even conflict with one another. Think of the "bitter sweet" concept. I can recall my own conflicting feelings during my high school graduation ceremony. On the one hand I felt joy about my accomplishment and the upcoming summer vacation. I felt sad about being separated from the friends I'd become so close with. I also felt fear of the unknown life ahead of me. My mother asked me how I was doing and I said, "GREAT!" Partly because I didn't understand the emotions I was having at the time. And I had no interest in discussing my emotions with my mother, in front of all my high school buddies. So it's possible for a single experience to trigger several emotions within us.

Sometimes, however, emotions themselves trigger other emotions. The primary emotion, is the one triggered by the event. The secondary emotion is triggered by the primary emotion. To me, this secondary emotion masks the primary emotion. Two huge examples of these masking secondary emotions in my life are shame and anger. Let's say I dislike a coworker of mine, and learn that they've been fired (experience). Within me, that triggers a feeling of joy. Suddenly, because I feel joy over something bad, I begin to feel shame. I'll then start to formulate my reaction based shame rather than joy. In this situation, it's probably best not to throw a party, dance and sing over some else's demise. Still, it's important for me to acknowledge my own feeling of joy to myself.

Anger is a strange one, for me fear and shame almost always trigger anger. My son's teacher told me he wasn't performing up to snuff, and they'd be holding him back for a few months until he can learn enough basic skills to move to the next level in preschool. I judged that as, "He's not doing well enough. These are his most important learning years. This may affect his entire school career." My emotion, then was fear. However, in me, that triggered anger. My reaction thoughts went something like this: "He's been in school for 8 to 10 hours almost every day for the past few years. Aren't they teaching him anything during those hours? Why is the day he is supposed to move up, the first time I'm hearing about the issues?" I hadn't acknowledged my own fear, I jumped straight to anger and went with it. When I think back, every single time I felt anger there was an underlying fear or shame emotion that I hadn't or couldn't recognize. I would argue that the primary emotion is the most important in understanding ourselves.

Emotions can trigger other emotions, masking at times, or can trigger the same emotion. For me, anger often triggers anger. If I feel anger toward someone or something else, I often become angry at myself for even feeling that anger. This is because I judge anger as a bad emotion, one that's wrong to have. I keep reminding myself that all emotions are valid and correct. Rejecting my own emotions hurts, not helps the situation. So, it's best for me to simply acknowledge and accept whatever emotion I'm having. I can learn Mindfulness skills to more clearly identify my judgment thoughts. I can teach myself how to think things through more thoroughly and come to different judgments. Emotions simply are.

How do we tell the difference between a thought and an emotion?

There's a lot of confusion, certainly in American culture, about emotions. In fact theorists have debated over various models of emotions, what they are, how they work, how they come about. Much of my confusion stemmed from hearing the words "feel" and "think" used almost interchangeably. Most of us say things like, "I feel like quitting my job" or "I feel patronized". Both of these are judgment thoughts, not emotions. I remember seeing a therapist, and describing an argument my girlfriend and I had. While I don't remember the exact phrase, it was something like, "I feel taken advantage of." My shrink immediately corrected me, "That's a thought, not a feeling." That was a big "ah ha!" moment for me, and those words still echo in my head. Honestly, I've been confused throughout my entire life about emotions. Not until the past few years, did I really begin to develop a clear understanding of what an emotion really is, and which emotion I'm actually feeling.

If we judge, for example, "I really should have remembered my anniversary", what follows might be a feeling of guilt. To begin with emotions, by their very definition, are adjectives describing myself and my physical sensations. So, looking at the examples above, "I feel like quitting my job" can't be a feeling. Quitting is a verb; we simply can't "feel quitting." If it's not an adjective, then it's not an emotion. In this case, "quitting" is one of the reactions that we're considering. In other cases, it's our judgment of the experience. If I were considering quitting my job, I'd step back and ask myself what emotion is behind it? Is it fear of being fired? Am I feeling isolated or lonely? Am I feeling annoyed or irritated by something?

Most researchers believe there's a direct connection between physical sensations and emotions. We may feel tense shoulders, a stiff neck, queasiness or "butterflies" in our stomach. Not only do some emotions come out as physical symptoms, we can actually stimulate different emotions by mimicking those physical symptoms. Think back to Section 5 - Distress Tolerance Overview, where we discussed the "half smile." For me, putting on a "half smile" in the midst of a very tense situation seemed downright silly. Yet, when I tried it, it made a noticeable difference. I find it almost impossible to feel sadness, anger or hatred with even a partial smile on my face. If I'm angry, putting on a full smile stimulates a mischievous feeling, which is not what I'm shooting for. A half-smile, however, seems to interject a feeling of calm or peace.

Other resources: Wiki: Physical responses to emotion, Kali Munro: Identifying how you feel

Phrases Describing Emotions

Many people confuse accusing judgments of someone or something else as an emotion. The phrases, "I feel abused" or "I feel insulted" are common, yet they're not emotions. If you're up on your English grammar, both of these words are transitive verbs, not adjectives. A tool I use to check is putting the word into the phrase, "Can someone _____ me?" If the answer is yes, then it's a judgment, and can't be an emotion. "Can someone abuse or insult me?" In both cases, the answer is yes it's possible. To figure out what emotion I'm actually feeling, I think about who "abused" or "insulted" me in this case, and ask "How did that make me feel?" Both happy and sad are emotions, and the question, "Can someone happy or sad me?" just doesn't make any sense.

Another tool I use to determine whether I'm using an actual emotion word is put the word immediately following the words "I feel", and make sure it's a single word not a phrase. I feel happy (joy). I feel scared (fear). I feel affection (love). I often find myself bypassing the emotion, because I don't recognize it or I'm feeling too vulnerable (fear) to acknowledge it. I can usually recognize this because I've added another word immediately following "I feel". Most of the time I use the word "like". Look at these phrases, which do NOT describe emotions: "I feel like hiding under a rock!" This judgment probably describes fear or shame. "I feel like he's an idiot." This judgment phrase, is probably anger.

Review

During this section, we discussed:

  • Emotions describe us; how we're feeling inside.
  • There is a direct connection between our bodies and emotions. We physically feel symptoms of our emotions, and can even stimulate emotions with our body.
  • In DBT we focus on six basic emotions (love, joy, anger, sadness, fear and shame)
  • Emotions stem from our judgment thoughts, not the experience itself; mindfulness skills can help us disconnect judgment thoughts from the experience.
  • We can feel several emotions at the same time. At times several are primary, which may trigger secondary emotions.
  • Judgment thoughts trigger primary emotions; primary emotions trigger secondary emotions.
  • Secondary emotions can, at times, mask primary emotions. Both are important to understand and acknowledge.
  • We often confuse thoughts (judgments or reaction) with emotions.
  • Emotions are always adjectives
  • Nobody can change our emotions, so verbs or transitive verbs are judgment thoughts. To see it, put the word in the phrase, "Can someone ___ me?"
  • Emotions always fit comfortably next to the word "feel", avoid sticking another word (e.g., "I feel like") between the word "feel" and the emotion word.

Exercises

To understand and identify your emotions, try the following exercises. Grab a pen/pencil and paper, then read through the "experiences" described below and answer the questions. When you're done, post your answers to the discussion forum (links at the bottom of this page) to discuss them with other members of this site.

  • A close family member or friend hollers, "I hate you!"

    Would you feel just one, or more than one emotion? What primary and secondary emotions might you feel?
  • A friend of yours tells you the following story:

    I couldn't believe it. It was our anniversary, so I decided to go all out. I bought him a really romantic gift and made his favorite meal for dinner. I had the table all set with candles and a really nice bottle of wine. He decided I wasn't important enough to come home on time! He showed up two hours late and just strolled in like nothing was wrong. He really pissed me off when he said, "Oh, what's all this for?" referring to the set table with cold food.
  • Describe your friend's experience (remember, remove all judgment thoughts; just the raw experience). What were your friend's judgment thoughts? What emotions might she have been feeling?
  • You learn that a close child (friend or family), who loves gymnastics and has trained very hard just won first place in a competition. When you congratulate them, they seem depressed or despondent. You ask her why she seems blue and she tells you that her best friend came in second place.

    What emotions might she be feeling? What might her primary or secondary emotions be?

Assignments

If you don't already have a journal or notebook, get one. At least three times this week, during lunchtime, describe an experience you had during the morning. Describe your judgment thoughts about the experience. Next, using only the six DBT emotion words, write which emotions you connected with each of the judgment thoughts. If you felt several emotions, identify them as primary or secondary emotions. Remember, all emotions are valid and correct. Please allow yourself to have the emotions you had. We can learn different ways of thinking, but our emotions are really a result of our judgment thoughts.

Other Resources

When you're ready to move on go to: Section 14 - PLEASE MASTER.

Comments   

 
0 #2 Guest 2013-01-13 22:22
Also, there is no such thing as a "correct" emotion, as that would be judgmental. Emotions can be justified and unjustified, but never correct or incorrect.
 
 
0 #1 Guest 2013-01-13 22:20
I'm sorry, but your information is incorrect. DBT names ten primary emotions, not six. You've left out disgust, guilt (which is different than shame), jealousy, and envy (which is different than jealousy). I'm not sure who the "we" in the article refers to, but if I were to use "we," it would include all of the staff and patients at the number one inpatient DBT program in the country as well as Marsha Linehan herself, whom I have met.
 

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