This morning, my not-yet-two-year old son told me “sorry, mama” when I tried to console him as big tear drops fell from his doe eyes. How easy it is to unintentionally send the message that distressing emotions should be pushed away. Overwhelmed by his insistent pleading as I held a limit, I had looked to my husband for help, while my kindergartener grasped onto me, begging for my attention too. How tricky it is to avoid another message: that negative emotions harm the people around you. 

The biosocial theory of emotion dysregulation – a theory for why some people have such a hard time with their emotions—emphasizes repeated transactions between a sensitive kid and an invalidating environment. Sometimes it feels virtually impossible to not invalidate your children (or partner, friend or coworker). None of us want to see others in pain. No, we say, don’t feel that way. And yet, pervasive invalidation of painful emotions—sadness, disappointment, jealousy, anger, embarrassment, unmet desire—not only sends the message that these emotions are bad and should be avoided, but also deprives children of learning how to feel all the feelings that come with living. Invalidation can occur in ways that are subtle as well as overt or traumatic. If you were a sensitive kid who grew up in a family that “just wanted you to be happy,” you might not have recognized this as invalidating. Your parents were loving parents and your home was a happy one, yet in all of its goodness, they didn’t equip you to be resilient in the face of ordinary pain. Today, when real life situations prompt strong emotions, the beliefs, or myths, about emotions that you learned as a kid might really interfere with being effective. You may have a tendency to invalidate yourself, carry guilt for burdening others with your negative emotions, and find it very difficult to tolerate when others are upset with or disappointed in you.

With this depth of understanding how individual histories of invalidation contribute to beliefs about emotions, DBT helps people relearn how to relate to their emotions. What myths might you carry about emotions? Perhaps you believe that showing emotions makes you weak, that negative emotions mean you are out of control, or that you are your emotions.

Let’s radically reframe our myths about emotions. Feelings—all of them—are for feeling. Whatever is there, has been prompted by something. And feelings are, after all, simply a series of thoughts, physical sensations and urges. Instead of resisting your feelings (or those of your child or loved one), start with the two basic steps of mindfulness: first, observe what is happening, and then accept, this is how it is (for me/for them) right now. At this point, knowing your myths can be especially helpful. This is how it is right now, and it’s hard for me to feel this because of my myth that emotions only cause problems. Or, I am feeling unjustified emotion and yet it is hard for me to work to change my feelings because of my myth that extreme emotions get me a lot further than regulating my emotions does. Now that you’ve acknowledged what is happening inside you and the difficulty of responding directly to it just as it is, turn the mind to validation. Notice how your thoughts and feelings make sense given what’s going on now or what you’ve been through in the past. See if you might normalize how anyone would feel this way. Notice if, once you stop resisting and deflecting and hiding and minimizing, the emotion becomes a little more tolerable, or even feels soothed when it’s allowed to be there and flow through you. 

As we say in DBT, it is not pain (a natural response to life’s difficulties) that leads to suffering; but rather, it is non-acceptance of pain that leads to suffering. It’s okay to feel, whatever the feeling.

by Marget Thomas, PsyD