Therapy Tuesday: DBT – Part 4D – Emotional Regulation

I still like the way emotional regulation was described to me when I was working with my DBT group. The therapist leading the group said something along the lines of this:

Most of us have cooked something in our lives. Maybe a simple meal, maybe something fancy. Imagine if you had to cook without any handles on the pans, and without potholders to protect your hands. Even cooking something simple like pasta would become super difficult. You’d have burns on your hands and possibly spill the food you wanted to eat, so you’d still be hungry. Emotional regulation is like putting handles on the pots and pans, and having some oven mitts available. With them, you get your need – food – met, and you don’t injure yourself or those around you.

Living without the ability to regulate your emotions is a hell that defies description. It leaves a person lashing out at those around them, harming themselves, and unable to see events clearly. It wrecks relationships, isolates the person suffering with it, and can even drive individuals to alcohol and drug abuse, or worse.

I want to point out that this skill set isn’t called emotional control. It’s called regulation. The fact is, we can’t control what we feel. Nor is it healthy to control our emotions in that sense. Gaining the skills to regulate our responses to emotion is healthy. This way we can turn down the heat on the boiling pot so it doesn’t boil over. We can pull the skillet with the meat away from the fire before it burns – and not be hurt.

This entire module of DBT therapy is possibly the most intense, and it is often a challenge to complete. It requires a level of self-awareness and introspection that can be painful at times. I know people who swear by “no pain, no gain” for physical workouts, but the phrase applies exponentially here. Having been through it, I’ll promise you, it is worth it in the end.

So what are these steps? Here’s the overview. Do keep in mind this is not a substitute for finding a therapist who is trained to work through these steps with you. The actual skill set takes up something like 20 or so pages in the workbook alone. All I’m giving is an overview.

These steps may, as in previous sections, seem overblown. The point of them is to help someone who wasn’t taught this while growing up. At each step, the person practicing this must be able to answer the questions without judging how they feel, the emotion, or others who are involved.

Following these steps there are additional options available. It may be best to act opposite the emotion. Feeling anxious over an encounter with an ex? Depending on the history, it may be best to act as if the ex is no more important to you than the random person you passed by a moment ago.

It may also be best to take action. This requires making sure that your emotion fits with the bare facts of a situation and that acting would be effective. Challenging your ex at a public event because you’re hurt that they have begun dating after your break-up, no. Discussing what a friend said that hurt your feelings at a time when you are alone and both calm, yes. Those examples are, of course, far simpler than life tends to throw at us, but I think they illustrate the process and outcomes nicely.

The end result for anyone who endures through the process and masters these skills is that life ceases to be ruled by emotions. A life where emotions are not regulated is something like being a toy sailboat on a stormy sea. Every wave of emotion tosses the person about, and the person is only able to cling to a desperate hope that they’ll be saved. The terrible reality is that those waves will smash that boat into the breakwater and reduce it to toothpicks.

A life with emotional regulation is like driving a car. You have a gas pedal, brakes, and steering. You can attempt to avoid someone driving recklessly. You go where you want to go, not where you get tossed. You have the control. It doesn’t mean someone won’t smash into you at some point, but it means you are more likely to be able to get back in your car and drive away. You might need some repairs (aka therapy) to help get your car back to its previous condition, but you’re okay.

This wraps up the series on DBT therapy. If you’re interested in finding a therapist in your area who practices DBT therapy, there are listings online. This link is part of Marsha Linehan’s site and lists professionals who are certified with her training program.

Whether this type of therapy interests you or not, I hope you’ve found this segment informative. Next week, I’ll start reviewing another mode of treatment and continue sharing facts and, hopefully, lifting the veil of mystery and misinformation about what treatment for mental health involves.


All information, content, and material of this website is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider.

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