Authors’ Note: this post took longer than expected, so we decided to polish this one instead of breaking up the series to post something else over Memorial Day weekend. Sorry for the lateness.
First thing I learned in therapy is that I have feelings. I may not know what they are and how they relate to my thoughts or behaviors, but they exist and influence my life choices. The first emotion I got in touch with was anger. And only because the medication separated me so much from my body and mind that I could “see” volcanoes seething and erupting inside of me during therapy sessions.
Not until 2007 when I started with a different therapist did I start to recognize “fear” and “anxiety” and “sadness” as they overwhelmed my mind and body. She didn’t tell me at the time, but a lot of what we did together was DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Part 1 of Emotion Regulation is acknowledging and identifying feelings. Part 2 is using certain strategies to cope with those emotions and not let the emotions influence thoughts and behaviors.
The women only partial program I went to in 2009 focused a lot on DBT. Depending on how long an individual stayed in the program, she could go through all 4 parts before leaving. DBT group sessions were daily and mandatory. I loved them; did not always say a lot, but I listened and learned.
My second time in the same voluntary partial program did not go so well. The people running it in 2012 were different from the ones in 2009, and groups were run differently too. Not that it was bad, but my needs were different. And most of what I learned the first time was repeated again; not much new to learn and experience in terms of coping strategies and techniques.
OK, I can feel. Now what?
The biggest takeaway from both times in partial programs was how others experienced and showed their feelings. By observing the women in my groups (I went to a female only partial program because I wasn’t ready to deal with men in that kind of setting yet; and I understood males better than females having worked in a male dominated office for many years), I learned about how different women expressed feelings; how the experiences were different and similar from mine; and how important facial expressions and body language are in expressing feelings clearly.
To some people words mean everything. To others, actions and expressions tell the truth instead of words. The rest of the people are somewhere in between; words and expressions are used to understand emotions. Between 2007 and 2009, I couldn’t articulate a feeling if I tried. I could easily mold my features and body to express whatever feeling I was supposed to show. But none of my real feelings showed; not in my voice; not in my eyes; not anywhere except inside my mind.
And there, I always saw destruction: witches toiling over a bubbling cauldron; sleeping volcanoes ready to erupt; the eruption; tornadoes and hurricanes blowing everything in their paths. Rarely, a quiet lake appeared below a mountain ridge. Or a meadow clearing deep inside a dark, twisted forest. But getting there was akin to a hero on a quest. And I wasn’t ready for that. Neither were my alters. Each of us had to go on a quest to find our quiet place. And from there, find each other.
Knowing of each other; having limited interactions once in a while; hearing voices intermingled with the monsters is not the same as finding each other and working together to be whole.
The second time in partial focused on learning techniques, but not so much about trauma or real life application of said techniques. In essence, I felt like I was teaching instead of learning to the point where some of my group members said in front of the leaders that I “should teach a group”. My alters did not like being excluded from group interactions and ignored as if they did not exist – something I had to do in order to get through the different sessions with some sanity.
Emotion Regulation (mine): Strategies to help me (us) not be controlled by our feelings and emotions. The often used phrase “think before you act”. In my case, “think before you react”.
Partial Inpatient treatment programs: sometimes extra support is needed, but not to the point of being committed to and inpatient program. Partial programs (voluntary or court-ordered) offer the extra support and group sessions in an outpatient setting. Different programs specialize in different mental illnesses, treatment strategies, gender, age and so on.
Mimicry or Learning by doing: By observing how people we liked and respected acted towards themselves and others, we learned how to treat ourselves and others with respect and acceptance. By watching others who had and expressed feelings, we learned how to do the same.
The skills and personality characteristics we practice
Persistence: Ignoring feelings makes them stronger and more powerful. Fighting them does that too. We can’t make the feelings go away. We can acknowledge and identify the feelings that come and go. Odd thing is that acknowledging the feeling takes some of the feeling’s power away. Identifying the feeling and welcoming it also takes power away. The feeling is not so overwhelming; it’s not in control anymore. But doing this is scary because it means that we have to experience all of the physical and mental sensations (thoughts, behaviors, etc.) that come with it too. Eventually, though we can say to ourselves, “I feel ___. ___ is expressed as _____ in my body and ____ in my mind. If I welcome all of it, the feeling will go away faster and on its own.” And the feeling does go away eventually.
Active Listening: I learned that feelings expressed in sounds are easier for me to understand, yet also very triggering. Noise tends to disrupt me far more than anything else. Specifically voices and movement are triggering. Growing up, listening to voices and body movement kept me out of danger more often than any other sense. So I stopped hearing actual words for a long time. My focus was on listening to tone, pitch, and volume. Those three pieces would let me know how much danger I was in and what kind in each environment. Not until I started college did I realize that I had stopped hearing actual words, sentences, conversations, etc. Most of the time I lived inside my head with ears tuned for danger or potential danger. Then I realized that if I wanted to participate and socialize I had to listen to what people actually said and respond with my own words. Later, when we all started communicating with each other, every alter had to re-learn how to listen actively, interpret the verbal and non-verbal cues, and respond using positive interpersonal communication skills. By using active listening, we can identify how other people feel and react to our words so that there are less problems with communication.
Solitude: looking inside and working with feelings requires time with safe people, time with instructors, and time alone to practice and learn. Solitude is not loneliness. It is a way of making friends with oneself and enjoying one’s own company. It’s a time to explore different ideas and skills without fear. It’s personal “me” time in which the individual can do anything or nothing or something in between as long as the task is done with purpose.
Analytical or Critical Thinking: a pause is an opportunity to use the logical side of the brain and ask “why am I feeling this way? How will I react? Do I want to react like that? Or do I want to react differently? How do my thoughts influence my feelings? Am I feeling something else under this feeling that is pushing me to react?” And by answering one or some of these questions, I/we have a chance to change our thoughts and reactions from negative to neutral or positive instead. This gives us control over ourselves instead of letting the feelings control our reactions.
Empathy: empathy is difficult to understand, respect, and accept because many people equate it with weakness. And others will be cruel by telling them that no one can feel what others feel because they didn’t “experience” it exactly the same. But empathy is not about “knowing what others feel” so much as “being able to relate to others’ feelings and situations through shared or similar experiences.”
Observation: Please refer to any of the characteristic explanations above. Each one provides many examples of observation.
I’d rather have feelings than live in a numb, colorless world. My alters agree and disagree. Understanding feelings and how to express them is one step closer to being able to understand ourselves. From there, we can understand others and use empathy to inform our choices and decisions.
No one gets hurt on purpose. Learning from mistakes is not so costly. And every success is a reminder to be grateful for the gifts we have and use to survive in a hostile world.
We all prefer to try any possible technique and strategy at least once. That’s why we tried the partial program again.
Thanks for reading.