DBT Skills for Parents: Why Bother with Emotion Regulation
When I first embarked on DBT Therapy, I was 22 years old. I was in a mental health crisis. And I thought Emotion Regulation skills were a waste of time. Despite my crisis, I thought my big emotions were a part of me, I thought they made me who I was. I thought my emotional insight informed my writing and was part of being authentic.
What I realized was that Emotion Regulation skills were not about numbing myself or changing myself. And my writing was more about practicing the skills than feeding off my mental illness. Developing Emotion Regulation skills does not take away who you are; it allows you to be who you really should be.
Why do we have emotions?
We have emotions for 3 reasons:
To motivate and organize us for action
To communicate to and influence others
To communicate to ourselves.
Let’s use anger as an example. Anger motivates us to act to correct something we perceive as a wrong or injustice, or to regain power we feel we have lost. When we are angry, our faces scowl and our bodies get tense. This communicates our anger to other people. Anger can also tell us what is truly important to us, what we value, and when we feel we are not meeting those values. Anger is a good example because while it is often a justified emotion, it is not often effective to act on it. Especially in parenting! And so Emotion Regulation comes in.
The 4 goals of Emotion Regulation
There are four goals of Emotion Regulation skills. First, and most important, is to understand and name your own emotions. Many people with painful emotions find them painful because we find them hard to name. We feel feelings, but can’t necessarily discern what that feeling is aside from the sensations it brings. For anger and parenting, knowing when we are angry helps us take a step back from it to bring our anger down.
The second goal of Emotion Regulation is to decrease the frequency of unwanted emotions. Most people with painful emotions will admit that they want them to go away. We take the low emotions because our high emotions are so fun. WIth Emotion Regulation skills, we hope to decrease these painful, unwanted emotions. Most parents want to be less angry, and Emotion Regulation will help with that.
The third goal of Emotion Regulation is to decrease emotional vulnerability. This will help us increase resilience. Emotion Mind will no longer be your rulling star, which is actually so, so freeing. We feel angrier when we are disregulated; it is something we acknowledge for our children and rarely remember to acknowledge for ourselves.
Which brings us to the final goal of Emotion Regulation. The fourth goal of Emotion Regulation is to decrease emotional suffering. What makes people suicidal is extreme emotional suffering. Emotional Regulation does not necessarily mean you will never have a painful emotion; it just helps reduce the suffering that can go along with painful emotions. It will help you manage extreme emotions so you do not make them worse. Extreme anger causes actions that often leave you suffering from guilt or shame. Shame is an emotion strongly tied to suffering, and so decreasing that is an important goal.
Emotion Regulation is an important skill in DBT. In many ways, it comes down to self care, taking the time for it, and knowing that if we haven’t we can expect to be disregulated. By knowing why we have emotions and why we should regulate them, we will stick more to our regulation goals when that nagging voice in our heads tells us to put ourselves on the backburner.