“Stupid. Just plain stupid. Ugh! Why does this always happen?!”
Standing in front of the mirror, Jennilee looked at herself from every conceivable angle. No matter which way she stood, which dress she wore, or how she did her hair, nothing worked. There was nothing she could do about it now, he would be there any minute.
As with so many things in Jennilee’s life, the prom was one more thing she did wrong. Wrong date, wrong dress, wrong everything. She was just so stupid. If she could just stop feeling, maybe things would get better. It happened the same every time – a boy she liked would catch her eye and peer back long enough to let her know she had been noticed. The spark in his eye was always enough to set ablaze her inner world, filling her with equal parts exhilaration and dread. Before long, her own needs would peek through and excitement would morph into obsession. This time was no exception. Her date caught her putting a tracking app on his phone. As prom happens only once in a life, he agreed to take her, despite the faux pas. He made it abundantly clear that would be the end of it.
If only she could stop her emotions. Stuff them down until she was an analytical, unfeeling robot. Maybe then she could keep a relationship. But, then, what would be the point? Ryan had another problem. He felt dead inside. Every day was the same day with different weather. Married, father of two, he faithfully manned his post at work. He did this because it was “the right thing to do,” not because it meant anything to him. Meaning had taken flight from his life a long time ago.
Everything was sheer obligation now.
He should have been happy. He had the dream – loving family, good income, more-than-comfortable surroundings. No one would ever have believed that he would trade it all in a heartbeat just to sit in a city center somewhere in Europe and play guitar. He did not need all the things he had, but he just took the path everyone does. It was just what people do. The pain of lost dreams and identity was too much. His feeling had long since shut down. He was just an empty shell and there was nothing he could do about it.
Or, so he thought.
Jennilee and Ryan both suffer from different extremes of emotion dysregulation known in neuroscience as “chaos” (Jennilee) and “rigidity” (Ryan). Emotions, at their bare minimum, are biochemical signals that respond to internal and external stimuli in order to alert the person to a particular need. They are not random. They are not stupid, weak, or useless. All emotions are triggered by something and, therefore, valid.
Let’s take a closer look at our languishing characters. The first time Jenniliee went on a date with a young man, he giggled at her makeup and told his friends she “looks like a clown”. Pretty soon, the whole school knew. It had been two years since then and she had learned a lot about how she wanted to present herself. Most people in her life today see her as a “beautiful, well put-together person.” However, at some point in all her relationships, she would see the boy laugh and assume he was laughing at her. Her current beau was no different. Three weeks earlier, while peering out a window, she saw him laughing on the phone. This set ablaze all the memory neurons in her brain and in a frantic effort to stave off potential gossip doom, she used invasive tactics to keep a close eye on her man.
Then, there was Ryan. His father was a high-powered businessman, professional and exacting. All throughout his young life, there were corporate parties at his lavish home. It seemed people fawned over his father and Ryan overheard multiple conversations between them and his dad wherein he advised them to “stay on the straight path to the top”. From this, Ryan “just knew” that his father would be disappointed if he did anything but walk the company line.
The question for both of these people is, “What really happened?” Did the new boyfriend really laugh at Jennilee? Did Ryan’s father really intend for him to forego his dreams?
This series has been looking at the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) module of Emotion Regulation in an attempt to understand how emotions work. In this case, one DBT technique known as “Checking the Facts” could go a long way in preventing the drastic over-drive or shut down that our hero and heroine have experienced.
What is “Checking the Facts” then? At its most basic form, it is a list of questions one can ask to assess the accuracy of an emotion (Remember – all feelings are valid, they are just not always accurate in the present moment). Whenever one has an experience or thought that leads to an overwhelming or absent emotion, it is important to first name the emotion. Therapists often say that “naming it, tames it”.
Once the emotion is identified, the following series of questions may be helpful:
- What just happened? Or, what happened to cause this feeling? Describe the situation.
- Check the facts: Does how I’m reacting accurately reflect what actually happened?
- Do I have any interpretations about the situation/thought?
- Check the facts: Are my interpretations accurate for the present moment?
- Do I perceive any threats regarding how this situation/thought might end?
- Check the facts: Is the threat real? How do I know?
- What is the worst-case scenario if this does not turn out as I like?
- Check the facts: Is that really the worst case? Am I embellishing?
- Now, what really happened? How do I want to proceed?
Brains run on rules and algorithms and brains move very fast. It is necessary, at times, to use the skill of mindfulness to bring in the “objective observer” (the mind) to help us see what the truth is in the present moment.
If you are living your past life over and over again or expending massive amounts of energy trying to avoid a future that may not even happen, then you may need to “check the facts”. In the beginning, it may be helpful to do this with a trusted “other” who can help you non judgmentally see the distortions in your thinking. The Center; A Place of Hope provides whole-person care and a team of caring professionals who can help you do just that. If it feels as if your emotions run your life and everything is spinning out of control, do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. You are not alone!
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center; A Place of Hope. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.