What good are emotions? Why do we have emotions? There might’ve been a time in your life where you cursed your emotions. You might’ve wanted to get rid of them entirely. Why continue with something that brings so much pain? The truth is that emotions are useful for a lot of reasons. It is also possible to change them because one emotion never lasts forever. Until we begin to understand the functions of emotions, we cannot expect ourselves to change them.
DBT looks at three major functions of emotions:
- Emotions Communicate to and Influence Others.
- Emotions Organize and Motivate Action
- Emotions Can be Self-Validating
Communication & Influence
We communicate our emotions to other with verbal and nonverbal (facial expressions, body gestures or postures) language. Some expressions of emotion have an automatic effect on others, like tears or a smile. When there is a difference in what a person communicates non-verbally versus verbally, the other person will usually respond primarily to the nonverbal expression.
Some people naturally show very little emotion on their face. Others show very strong emotions on their face, while expressing less strong emotions verbally. For example, people who struggle with symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder often find that their nonverbal emotional expressions do not match their inside feelings so they are often misread.
Some people laugh through their grief or cry when they’re happy. No matter the intent, the communication of emotions influences others.
- Think of a situation where your expression of emotion was misread. What emotion were you feeling? What emotion did the other person interpret? How did it feel to be misread?
- Think of a situation when you misread the emotion of someone else. What emotion did you read from them? How did the misinterpretation affect your interaction?
Organization & Motivation
Emotions prepare for and motivate action. There is an action urge connected to each specific emotions that is hard-wired. “Hard-wired” means it is an automatic, built-in part of our behavior. For example, if you see your two-year old child in the middle of the street and a car coming, you will feel an emotion, fear, and this emotion will prompt you to run to save your child. You don’t stop to think about it. You just do it. Your emotion has motivated your behavior without you having to take the time to think.
Emotions can also help you overcome obstacles in your environment. Consider the anxiety you feel when you are about to take a test. This anxiety, though it’s uncomfortable, helps to motivate you to study so you will do well on the test. Anger may motivate and help people who are protesting injustices. The anger may override the fear they might feel in a demonstration or protest. Guilt helps spur apologies because it lets you know that you have done something against your values.
These are all examples of when emotions are functioning effectively at the right levels. When your emotions are dysregulated, your anxiety might lead to inaction or your anger might damage relationships. These examples also refer to times the emotions are justified. You may not be able to relate to these examples at the moment, but with skills use DBT can help get you there.
- Brainstorm a couple of examples where your emotion prompted you to take action before you thought about it.
- Determine a situation where an emotion helps you overcome an obstacle in your environment (in the community, at home, at school), where it makes it easier for you to get something done, for example. It may not be a pleasant emotion but it does help get the job done.
Emotions can provide information about a situation or event. They can signal to us that something is going on. Sometimes these signals will be picked up unconsciously and then you may have an emotional reaction, but not be sure what set off the reaction. That feeling of something not feeling “right” or sensing that something was going to happen before it does are some of the signals we might get.
When dealing with your feelings this way is carried to the extreme, however, you may think of the emotion as fact. For example: “I love him, so he’s a good person” or “If I feel stupid, I am stupid.” While your emotions are always valid, they are not always facts.
This is difficult for people with symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder and others, because they are greatly affected by invalidating environments which leads them to distrust their own emotions. If your emotions are minimized or invalidated, it’s hard to get your needs taken seriously. So you may increase the intensity of your emotions beyond what is effective in order to get your needs met. And then if you decrease the intensity of your emotions, you may find again that you are not taken seriously.
- Think of some times when your feel for a situation turned out to be right. Is there a time when you felt anxiety or apprehension that turned out to be justified? Or that you had a good feeling about someone that turned out to be right? This is a self-validating emotion.
- Fill out an emotion diary for several days. For each day choose your strongest emotion, or the one that lasted the longest, or was the most difficult or painful. Describe the prompting event, the event that caused or triggered the emotion. And describe the emotion’s function: to communicate to others, to motivate action, or to communicate to yourself.