If it’s raining outside, and you happen to be out there, you’re probably going to get wet. That is, unless you’ve prepared by bringing a raincoat, umbrella, poncho or trash bag. This truism is often the way I frame my discussion of emotion. It’s generally accepted by most people that when it’s raining outside, you’ve got a couple options to avoid getting wet - prepare by bringing the aforementioned gear or don’t go outside. To expect not to get wet without doing either of those things is kind of absurd1. Natural reactions - getting wet - to everyday occurrences - rain - are, umm, natural, and, double ummm, normal.
We don’t expect people not to get wet just by willing themselves to be dry or by believing that if they only thought about things differently, they’d stay dry.
Or that if “normal” people were in the same situation, they’d be dry.
It’s. Just. Not. True.
If someone is able to stay dry in a rain storm, chances are they’ve got a nice big golf umbrella, a good pair of hiking boots and a fancy Gore-tex jacket. You may not have any of those things right now, but you can learn to get them. And, in the meantime, you can work on using what you’ve got, maybe a trash bag or an old newspaper, to keep yourself as dry as possible.
With that tidy metaphor out of the way, let’s get down to the business of learning about emotion. Understanding it so that we know what we’re dealing with. Emotion comes from prompting events. These events can be internal (e.g., thoughts) or external (e.g., a car accident). They can be actual or they can be just perceived. It doesn’t really matter because in dealing with emotions, perception is reality.
A prompting event can lead to an interpretation of that event. These interpretations are deeply personal and are often what people think of when they try to deal with emotions. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “If I could just think differently, I wouldn’t feel so bad.” That’s sort of true. And sort of not true at the same time. In other words, just thinking about things differently (or changing your interpretations), is not always going to work to change how you feel2. If it always were so easy, self-help books would be all anyone ever needed for therapy and I’d be out of a job!
A prompting event can also lead to any number of physiological reactions. When you get frightened and get goosebumps? That’s the sort of thing I’m referring to. Flushing face, tension in your shoulders. Additionally, interpretations can also lead to physiological reactions. “Someone’s broken into my house and my life’s in danger” will lead to a racing heart and quickened breathing, for example. These physiological reactions are hard-wired and not something that we can just stop doing3 right away.
We then have what are called, in DBT parlance, “action urges.” These are the things that you are driven to do as a result of the situation/interpretation/physiological reaction. When you’re scared, you run. When you’re angry, you lash out. When you’re ashamed, you hide. Again, these are all considered hard-wired reactions. Think of it from an evolutionary perspective. Back in the day, things that caused fear were often life threatening. It made sense to run when your life was threatened. Right?
So, we have at least 3 sources for the formation of an emotion. There are other potential sources, such as history and vulnerability factors, and we’ll get to those in another post. But, to get back to our metaphor, there are 3 storm fronts that are moving your way and there’s not much you can do to keep them from getting to you. At least right now, all you can do is cope with them4.
Not absurd in the “crazy” way, but just absurd in the strict definitional sense.↩
Read about behaviorism and learning theory to understand why.↩
We can do things like progressive muscle relaxation to deal with these reactions.↩
As we progress through these skills, you’ll be able to control the weather. How cool will that be?↩