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Chasing adventure & living mindfully while parenting through mental illness

DBT Skills For Parents: Painful Emotions

DBT Skills For Parents: Painful Emotions

I posted a while back about Opposite To Emotion Action. I probably jumped the gun, but I was so excited to share that skill. So I am going to back it up and share some information about sitting in painful emotions. 

Of all the skills I learned in my year of DBT therapy, Emotion Regulation skills had the biggest impact on me. Emotion Regulation skills were the perfect tools to unravel the big feelings I had. They taught me to associate physical feelings with certain emotions. They taught me that emotions are temporary, even the most painful ones.

I am an empath; I feel other people’s emotions deeply and often painfully. This takes me a lot of courage to admit because it feels narcissistic to say. Being an empath, however, does not give me license to center my emotions over others’; it does not give me the right to guilt others for their emotions; and it does not give me permission to lose control of myself. I have to work harder, and that is my responsibility. DBT taught me how to do that work. 

Emotion Basics

Emotions have a basis in both biology and cognition (or interpretation). They cause physical changes AND changes in thinking and motivation. For example, if you feel scared, you get goosebumps or your heart starts pumping faster. These are biological changes. But you also think differently. Your attention narrows. You focus on thoughts about being hurt. You think about fleeing the situation. Or you can freeze up entirely. Check out this diagram from DBT Skills Training: Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition. 

Emotion Cycle

It's a complex diagram, but basically the biological changes, expression, and interpretation of your emotion feed each other, and those things are affected by prompting events, pre-existing vulnerabilities, and secondary emotions. If you disrupt the cycle at the any point, you can slow down the cycle of painful emotion. 

Core painful emotions are 

  • anger 

  • disgust 

  • envy 

  • fear 

  • jealousy

  • sadness

  • guilt

  • shame

Each emotion causes specific biological changes and has effects on thinking and motivation. Learning this, and subsequently practicing mindfulness of my painful emotions, made me able to function as an empath. I could see which of my emotions made sense and were “mine” and which I was "getting" from other people.

A Note On Shame

Before I get into how to sit in difficult emotions, it's important to talk about shame. You feel shame when you have somehow gone against a societal value. It is different than guilt (when you go against your personal value). Shame is an important emotion for maintaining ordered society. But often we feel shame based on PERCIEVED societal values, or based on societal norms coded in racism, sexism, or ableism. 

It is not recommended to sit in shame. It is unhelpful and ineffective to sit and wallow in shame. Instead, we should practice opposite to the emotion and talk to a safe person about what makes us feel ashamed. Opposite action, in this case, is a far more effective method of resolving shame.

On to the emotions that we should take the time to sit with. 

Sitting In Painful Emotins

It is important to recognize and attend to painful emotions before we try to change them. Next time you have a painful emotion, try to slow down and get into Wise Mind. Then, try the following:

  • Notice your emotion as a wave, ebbing and flowing, getting higher, then lower

  • Notice where in your body you feel the emotion. Stay mindful of those sensations

  • Remember you are not your emotion (you don't have to act on it, and you haven't always felt this way) 

  • Radically accept your emotion

It helps to know some basics about what causes certain emotions. I also find it helpful to have a mantra for when I'm sitting in a painful emotion to keep myself focused on it. I've included those too. Here they are:


Why: You have a goal blocked; you (or someone you love) is losing power/respect; things haven't gone as planned; or you're in pain. 

Mantra: Even without __________ I acknowledge my strength and power. 


Why: Seeing, smelling, or tasting something unclean; witnessing or hearing about someone violating societal values

Mantra: This too shall pass. 


Why: Someone has something you really want or can't have

Mantra: My wants are just thoughts, and I don't have to act on them. 


Why: Having (or perceiving that) your health or well-being are threatened. 

Mantra: Sometimes you have to get through your fear to get to the other side (yes, this is from The Good Dinosaur 😂) 


Why: An important relationship is, or seems to be, threatened by another person

Mantra: I highly value this relationship, and I do not have to act on my jealousy. 


Why: You've lost something; you have no power to change something; you are alone; things have not turned out how you expected. 

Mantra: It is okay not to be okay. 


Why: You have violated a personal value. 

Mantra: Even though I  __________, and I deeply and completely love and accept myself anyway. 

As parents we have to be able to sit in our uncomfortable emotions. We have to model tolerance of those emotions without acting on them. If we model this behavior, then our kids will eventually learn it too. 

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