We are emotional beings. As complex patterns of internal reactions to external stimuli, emotions are what helped the human species survive. Emotions direct our actions and determine our well-being and health.
Whether we are aware of our emotions or not, whether we talk about emotions or not, and whether we recognize their vital importance or not, emotions are an integral part of our lives and have a powerful effect on us. What kind of effect? That all depends on how we manage any given emotion.
False assumptions and lack of skills to regulate emotions often get in the way of effectively dealing with them. Although inter-related, challenging false assumptions is a crucial first step of emotion regulation training. Here are five common myths about emotions (derived from Dialectical Behavior Therapy) you’ll want to challenge:
Myth #1: There is a right way to feel in every situation
If anything is certain, it’s that there’s always more than one way to view a situation. Everyone experiences life with a different frame of reference, which results in different emotions and reactions. Thinking in terms of right or wrong (e.g. “I shouldn’t be feeling sad now”) can increase the intensity of the emotion at hand, or set off other emotions too, such as shame and guilt. Hence, what’s important is not what the emotion we experience is, but how we respond to the way we feel.
Myth #2: There are good and bad emotions
Emotions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They just are. We need emotions for survival. Rather than getting rid of unwanted emotions, what we need to do is to learn how to regulate them.
Judging emotions as “bad” makes painful emotions even more painful. Thinking of emotions in terms of good or bad can also lead to suppressing the “bad” ones. Suppressing emotions has been linked to elevated stress, cognitive status difficulties, panic attacks, a weakened immune system, and other symptoms such as headaches or pain in different parts of the body where no physical cause can be found.
Myth #3: Negative emotions are destructive
Negative emotions are only destructive when not managed properly. For instance, anger functions to protect us from assault or loss of important people, things or goals — it is an emotion that arises to make us focus on self-defense and control. Only when anger comes out towards other people in an aggressive form or when it leads us to make bad, impulsive decisions is it destructive.
On the other hand, sadness pulls us into ourselves in order for us to figure out how to respond to the loss of someone or something important, to goals lost or not attained. It makes us focus on what we value and our goals our life. Only when sadness leads to depression or when it gets in the way of meeting our responsibilities is it destructive.
Again, all of our emotions serve us in a way. It is impossible to avoid negative emotions; regulating and learning how to cope with them is the key.
Myth #4: I cannot handle/control my emotions
Emotions can be hard to change. However, the biggest barrier to regulating your emotions is the belief that you are not able to do so.
Regulating emotions takes time and work, but it comes down to:
- Identifying what emotions you are experiencing
- Understanding where these emotions are coming from
- Changing the way we think about the situation that provoked a certain emotion
- Acting opposite to the emotion’s action urge
Here’s an example:
- I feel angry.
- This is because my boss snapped at me today. As a result, I thought that I am not competent at work or that this is what my boss thinks about me.
- However, taking a step back, I need to acknowledge that this is the conclusion I drew and that there might be a different perspective. My boss might have had a bad day himself and his irritation may reflect his own mental state. Or, even if that’s not the case, his being mad at me does not imply that he thinks I am bad at my job. It could also be that I myself don’t feel confident with my performance and this makes me take things personally or feel judged easily.
- What do I want to do right now? How would I be acting if I was not angry? Pushing myself to act (both mentally and behaviorally) as if the incident didn’t take place, will very soon calm me down.
Myth #5: It is inauthentic to try to change my emotions
Emotion regulation is for decreasing emotional suffering, not for changing who you are. Emotions are temporary states anyway; by no means do they define who you are. Changing doesn’t mean suppressing the emotion or parts of yourself. You want to manage the emotions that are too painful to bear, the emotions that are not effective in helping you lead the life you want, and the ones that are standing in your way — not allowing you to achieve your goals.
Taking the example of sadness, you may want to regulate your sadness after a breakup or divorce since an evaluation at work or a project deadline is approaching. Additionally, when your sadness gets in the way and doesn’t allow you to meet your caregiving responsibilities or disrupts your self-care routine, regulating it should be a priority.
Having said that, it is important that you try to change the emotions you want to change and not the emotions other people want you to change. Trying to control your sadness, for instance, because your friends believe that you shouldn’t be sad about the relationship ending, since it was not worth it anyway, would be neither authentic nor successful.