DBT Review: The Functions of Emotions

I wanted to do a little DBT review today. Taking the DBT skills training class last fall changed my life. It has literally helped me survive and stay alive man times and has helped me cope in so many other ways too.

I wish there where DBT GROUPS where the pre-requisite was to already have taken a skills training class and then meet and review skills, do therapy together, and make DBT goals. But I can’t find one of those ANYWHERE! All groups that I have researched are skills training groups (like lessons from the beginning). I don’t want to learn something I already know, I want to discuss it with others who already know too and practice. Well, right now I just have to settle for practicing it on my own.

At the very beginning of DBT, you learn the evolutionary/biological functions of emotions. The REASON they all have a purpose, even the bad emotions. This was common-sense but also revolutionary for me to learn about. I used to have such a huge problem accepting ANY negative emotion, thinking it was wrong or I was doing something wrong. Thinking it would last forever (still working on that one sometimes). Being afraid of the emotion (still working on that with anxiety too). Most of all, judging MYSELF for the emotion.

My emotions are still very intense. They are still very often hard to cope with. But taking away that piece of judging myself for them is so powerful. It makes it that much easier to cope.

Anyway, in DBT there are 7 main emotions: Joy, Fear, Sadness, Guilt, Shame, Anger, Envy, Jealousy. Of course there are more that can be sub-sets of these or related to them. Anxiety is really a part of fear for instance.

Here are my interpretations (and extra thoughts) and what I learned about the functions of emotions in DBT.

We cannot survive without emotions. They all serve as signals to us about our world. Fear biologically protects us. If a lion was running towards us and we didn’t feel fear, we would just stand there and let it eat us.

Of course in our modern world, not everything we fear is going to happen or is entirely rational in this “cave man” sense. But at it’s root, it is the same biological response and we can still deduce what it is telling us.

So Fear protects us.

Anger spurns us into action and protects us too. It shows us we want something more or that we are being wronged. If you are angry at something in your life, you can use that anger to work on changing your circumstances, to ask for help, to demand respect from someone else.

Sadness shows us what we value. It is also a signal to ohers to come over to help us when we have a hard time.

Joy shows us what we value too. It gives us hope and keeps us fighting against all this negative stuff so we have a reason to keep living.

Envy gives us ambition. Not just greed. It can be wanting something that would give you fulfillment too – career-wise, love-wise, etc. This really has to be balanced. There can be too much of all of these if you think about it, and that isn’t good. You can learn what you want from envious feelings, but you have to be very careful not to take the envy and then judge yourself as worthless because you don’t have “it”. You also have to check-in to see if what you want can be attained in a healthy way, if it will TRULY make you happy. But you shouldn’t feel guilt (secondary emotion) about feeling envious; it is natural sometimes.

Jealousy helps us protect what we already have. If you didn’t feel sad when something was taken away, it wouldn’t be valuable in the first place. But you can’t let this overrun you either (same principles as above). It’s always something to work on. This is a big one for me. While I am ironically not a jealous person in relationships, the definition of jealousy, to me, goes beyond that. It is guarding anything you don’t have, being afraid you will lose what you have. For instance, I have a lot of fear that I will lose the good things in my life. I feel guilty about them sometimes. Then I try to control my world with negative coping mechanisms to feels safe and get rid of that fear. So you shouldn’t feel guilty about feeling jealous, but you shouldn’t let that jealousy turn into fear that consumes you.

Guilt keeps us from doing bad things to others. (As my friend Marshall said the other day when I was talking about how I hate feeling guilt…”At least you feel it in general. If you didn’t, you would be a psychopath.”)

Shame traditionally functioned to keep us within social norms in our primitive society so that we would continue to be protected by the group (not being able to survive well alone). Shame is about our identity. While I don’t believe that we should feel shame for not conforming in our modern world, it can still give us many signals. Sometimes it can help us love ourselves more. Sometimes when I feel shame, I check in and say, “Why do you feel shameful about that? Is that rational? Love yourself!”

These emotions give us a general signal. What can we learn from this?

  • We need to NOT judge ourselves for them, not ever. When you do that, you just feel secondary emotions ABOUT the first emotion and it makes things worse.
  • We can process them and take their signal as a way to proceed in the healthiest, kindest way.
  • We need to realize that while they have an evolutionary function, they can be misguided (such as worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet or feeling guilt when no one else is mad and you are just being too hard on yourself).

So the lesson is not to judge YOURSELF for your emotions, to see what they are trying to tell you, and then use positive coping skills (that you learned in DBT 😉 )to deal with them.

Does any of that not make sense? Do you disagree about anything? I have a feeling that if you disagree it’s probably because I didn’t explain it correctly. This is an awesome topic to discuss and explore.


One thought on “DBT Review: The Functions of Emotions

  1. Oh God – yes it most certainly does make sense. Too much. My problem is that I don’t take the positive steps to changing them. I just continue to sabatoge myself in every manner.

    Thank YOU for your sweet, kind words to me ;)…I’m still very uncertain….I don’t know if I like the new name? “Baking n Books”…? I don’t know…is it me? Does it resonate food or something too much? I also kind of miss my old posts and what I had established. Maybe I should have just kept that blog…or transferred it over under a new name?…it’s too late now I guess, I told most people…and I guess transferring still leaves it open to harassment to old stalker…but I don’t know anymore…blah 😦

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