The experience of intense negative emotions is probably the number one reason one would seek out mental health services. That, and the subsequent problematic behaviors they tend to elicit – anything from not getting out of bed for weeks on end, to substance abuse, and myriad other self destructive tendencies. No doubt negative emotions are painful and can seriously disrupt our life. And, if we happen to be an individual whose emotional experience is intense and unpredictable we can be particularly bowled over by the unpleasant ones.
So why in the world would DBT suggest that we should love our emotions – all of them including the not so nice ones? How could one possibly love something that causes so much trouble?
There are numerous theories developed to explain emotional experience in humans – how and why they occur and the order of thought, body response, and behavior. However, these theories are of little consolation when we are suffering. What can be comforting in the midst of painful reactions is to understand that emotions are simply the body’s way to protect and preserve us. They are like an alarm system that helps us get our basic human needs met, protect us from danger, and might even save our life. When our emotional alarm system is working optimally it motivates us to act, organizes our behavior, and communicates to others and ourselves vital information about the situation. Sounds great, right?
However, we’ve all had that experience of a faulty alarm system, or one that is activated unnecessarily. Who hasn’t experienced the annoyance of a screeching car alarm that got triggered accidentally while the owner is nowhere in sight (or a very heavy sleeper). I recall many a college night spent standing outside my dormitory in the cold waiting to be let back into my room because the fire alarm had gone off for no apparent reason (or more likely been set off as a prank). The alarm was there to protect us but on those nights created inconvenience, disruption, and discomfort for no good reason.
Learning to regulate emotions is like learning to live with an imperfect alarm system. Instead of reverting to a state of panic and confusion at the sign of every negative emotion, we learn to step back, observe, and check the facts of our situation. We learn to tweak the alarm system so false alarms are less frequent and intense; and to shut it off and get back to living more quickly even when it does go off unnecessarily. We learn to accept our system’s imperfections and work with it, all the while knowing that it’s at least trying to be helpful. And maybe at some point, we even learn to love it!