E7: Emotion Exposure
Many of us avoid or block uncomfortable emotions we feel and this leads to negative behaviors. We might fear them, we might be raised in an environment where it wasn't encouraged to be open to what you feel, or we might simply think that there is no use of letting ourselves feel what arises.
One of the main goals of DBT is to learn how not to block the emotions we're feeling - how not to be afraid of them. Negative emotional experiences are part of life. The steps in this exercise will help you navigate through emotions that you often try to block. When this becomes a practice for you, you will notice that you will no longer engage in the resulting negative behaviors. Let's start!
Step One: Chronic Emotion
Think about an emotion that you've noticed you have a hard time accepting. The way you will recognize this is by trying to remember certain repetitive problematic behaviors you have in your day to day life as a result by this emotion. By now, doing the previous exercises from this and the other two modules should prepare you to easily observe your emotions and resulting behaviors. Take your time. For example, maybe you fight a lot with your close ones (friends and family), maybe you have difficulties with your job, or your relationship with your children could use some work. Think about the underlying emotion behind this.
Then, in the worksheet write down what emotion you picked and what your usual resulting behavior is.
Step Two: Observe the Emotion
Next, during the day try to be observant and open to noticing when this emotion arises in you. Since it is a chronic one, one that you've been struggling with often, you will probably be able to identify it when it arises.
Notice that first you need to get familiar with all the steps of the exercise, so that later during the day (or perhaps the next few days) when the emotion arises - you will be prepared to apply these steps.
Step Three: Emotion Exposure
Once you've identified that the emotions you are working one started arising, take 5 minutes to sit down and observe the process.
Take a few deep breaths, and observe the emotion. What are you feeling? What is the intensity of the emotion? Do you feel like the intensity will increase or has it reached its peak? Do you feel any bodily sensations as a result of the emotion? Be open to the emotion even if right now you don't feel as comfortable as you like. You will notice that, perhaps, allowing yourself to feel the emotion will change the process in some way.
Now that you've been present together with your emotion for a while, do you notice any change? Maybe the intensity of the emotion changed. Perhaps you even started feeling another emotion as a response to the first one. Think of this process like a wave or a cycle that is ever-changing and temporary.
Step Four: Emotions Without Action
Now that you've been mindful for a while of the emotion and of the whole wave-like process, observe how it feels to just sit with the emotion and not take the usual action. For example, if you usually lash out at people and argue because of feeling hurt, how does it feel to just be with the emotion and not take any action?
Remember, emotions are temporary. They come and go, and even when they are uncomfortable, the skillful approach of dealing with them in an informed way is a better alternative than reacting in the automatic behavioral response.
After you finished the exercise, use the worksheet to write down how this experience went for you.
I am working on the emotion anger (my wife said something really hurtful to me), and I can't stop judging her while I'm doing the steps.
First, it is great that you observed that judgments arise in you while you are doing the exercise. It is normal for your mind to wander and do that automatically does. Just accept this and try to let the judgments go. Remember that this too is a skill that is gradually practiced, so just be patient.
During step three, I keep noticing that I just want to stop doing the exercise, I'm uncomfortable with the emotion. What should I do?
Just keep observing that you feel the need to block this emotion and keep doing the exercise. You can set your timer to 5 minutes so that you remind yourself that you'll be doing this for a relatively short time. After you are done with the exercise try to figure out why you have the need to block this emotion, if you think that that would be beneficial. Maybe you have a hard time accepting some underlying issue, in that case you can go back to practicing the exercise Radical acceptance from the second module Distress tolerance.
I can't leave the situation that is causing my emotion, so when should I do the exercise?
When we feel overwhelming emotions, even if the moment of the highest intensity involves a situation we can't immediately leave, very often we have a lingering sense of the emotion. Perhaps you felt enraged when you were at work and you really didn't have the time to just find a quiet space and do this routine, but try to observe what you'll feel when you head home. Maybe you still feel bitter, or you feel some other secondary emotion as a response to the first one. You can work on that one. It is still useful to practice this exercise even when you are not at the peak of the situation. This way you will be more skilled next time, and maybe you can do a version of it adapted to the situation you are in.
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