Emotions are like a sixth sense because like sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, they give us important information about our environment that we need to survive. What makes emotions so special is that they help us to act quickly when logical thought is too slow for us to engage in problem-solving. (See Situations below.) However, for people who may be unusually emotionally reactive, sensitive, or have learned to judge or invalidate their emotional sixth sense from culture, values, gender roles, parents, family, loved ones, etc., emotions may not always cause the expected effective response. Therefore, dialectical behavior therapy came up with the skill checking the facts to help us figure out if our emotional responses fit the facts and intensity of a situation and whether an unwanted or distressing emotion needs skills toward accepting and changing or skills toward accepting and tolerating.
Situations When Emotions May Be More Effective Than Problem Solving
- A person walks in front of your car; fear of hurting someone else or yourself causes you to slam on the breaks and veer away from the person without thinking about it. The result is fear saved your life and the life of the person who walked in front of your car.
- The garbage in your kitchen is piling up; the rotting food and stench is so disgusting you so much you immediately take it out to the dumpster instead of thinking about whether or not you should go on strike and stop taking out the garbage altogether to get your roommates to do their part. Disgust makes sure you do not unnecessarily expose yourself to dangerous bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other disease-causing things that exist in garbage.
- In a department store, a man twice your size, with huge muscles, and a survival knife strapped to his waist threatens to spank your crying child who just said “F-you!” when you told her she could not have the toy she wanted. You get angry and step between your child and the person, and warn him that if he touches your child, he will be sorry. Anger causes you to protect your child when thinking about it might prevent you from taking on someone who could easily clobber you.
Emotions That Are More Intense Are More Convincing
Although emotions give us valuable information we need to thrive and survive, if we are not mindful of the facts that cause them, we may mistakenly believe that they are always telling us the truth. However, when we check the facts of emotional responses, we can dialectically challenge their intensity through a clear behavioral practice that helps offset dilemmas emotionally intense people often face.
For example, Joe may be emotionally sensitive based on his biology, which causes him to be more reactive and experience emotions more intensely and for a longer duration than most people. Therefore, when prompted by an emotion, it may overwhelm his logical mind so that he automatically believes his emotions are telling him the truth. Every one of us has probably in our life had an emotion feel so intense, we unquestionably believed it to be true. “I just had this gut feeling, that she was lying to me.” The feeling drives the assumption. Checking the facts tests the assumption’s reliability. In dialectical behavior therapy, we realize that wise mind is neither logical or emotional but a synthesis.
The following is a scenario where emotional intensity that is misleading leads to problem behaviors associated with panic disorder and agoraphobia. Robin had a heart attack 10 years ago while in line at a grocery store. Now every time she goes to the store and has to wait in line, she has a panic attack and leaves before she gets to the register. The fear and anxiety are so intense she believes that staying in line is going to lead to catastrophe. Therefore, she responds to it by running away from the danger. Since she had a heart attack in a store line, her fear makes sense because the fear has a cause. However, the fact that her fear is valid does not necessarily mean that her response to the fear is valid too.
To figure out whether Robin’s response to fear is valid, we need to check the facts surrounding it. With fear, we know it is valid when our life or that of one of we care are about is threatened. (See flow charts below.) So let us check the facts. What causes heart attacks? “Most heart attacks happen when a blood vessel supplying part of the heart becomes blocked. When that part of the heart stops getting enough blood and oxygen, it can be damaged, causing a heart attack. Usually, the blockage is caused by a fatty material (plaque) that builds up on the inside of blood vessels and a blood clot.” (Craig, 2011) So now that we know the facts about what causes heart attacks Robin can go about assessing if the cause of heart attacks correlates with her fear of having a heart attack in a store.
In dialectical behavior therapy skills training, there is a very clear process. “Check the facts and analyze clearly whether your feared outcomes are likely. Observe what is really going on, and ask wise mind whether your feared outcomes constitute a true catastrophe. Cope ahead can be useful for getting better at handling situations that you know precipitate judgmentalness in you.” (Linehan, 2015, p. 159) So if Robin wants to apply this to her own situation. Here is a line of questioning she may use to check the facts. Does standing in store lines cause heart attacks? No. If Robin is going to have a heart attack, will leaving the store before she gets to the register prevent it? No. And if Robin is at risk for another heart attack what are the odds that it will happen again right at the moment she is standing in line at a store? Her odds are probably pretty slim. So, the conclusion is that Robin’s fear makes perfect sense given her past experience and her response of running out of the store before she can get to the register is not valid because checking the facts, it becomes clear there is no real danger. From this point, Robin may proceed to constructing whatever cope ahead strategy suits her dialectical behavior skills knowledge and preference so that next time she is in a store line she may try something different instead of running out of the store when fear arises. The key is that change transpires through acceptance. When we accept that every behavior has a cause and look for the cause instead of giving into urges to judge or blame, change becomes more possible.
Communicating Emotional Pain: Do You Have to See It to Believe It?
All emotions have a cause and therefore contain validity. When we do not validate or acknowledge emotions, they usually increase in intensity, which likewise may lead to problematic behaviors. Yet when a person’s emotional expression escalates, we often respond by judging the person’s emotions and not listening to them. As such the person’s emotions increase because their expression is not being acknowledged or accepted.
To illustrate the function, let us say that instead of communicating emotion, you were at work and a fire started on the floor you were on, while your co-workers, on the floor above you, had no idea. Your goal is to let your co-workers know about the fire so you can effectively respond and evacuate. If your co-workers did not acknowledge that they believed you or took your message seriously, would you shrug your shoulders and go your own way or would you increase your intensity of communication by raising your voice, becoming more animated, intense? Would you question what you knew to be true about the fire because others did not believe you even though you saw the fire with your own eyes, felt the heat on your skin, filled your nostrils with sulphuric burn of it smoke? Would you trust your own senses more than the social order of majority rules?
Most people would not doubt their senses no matter how fervent or many others might object, and, as such, would likewise intensify their assertion regarding the fire, escalating the message until, at last, it was received. This is the same with communicating emotional suffering. When a person says she feels miserable and the confidant responds by saying, “you have nothing to be miserable about,” or “other people have it a lot tougher than you do,” or “you are always so dramatic about everything,” or “you need to learn to appreciate what you have,” or “Chin up. Life is rough,” or “Get over it,” it is saying to the person needing support that she really does not need support because her pain, is in fact, not real. So while the person in misery may be reaching out for support, instead what she gets is an argument, more distress, and the burden of proof that her misery is true. Finally, after she has pleaded, begged, argued, and still meets disbelief and skepticism, she realizes that words are not enough to communicate her emotional pain, so moves to actions.
When we see a wound, we do not doubt that it causes pain, but the cause of painful of emotions is not something we can see like a scratch or a cut because the wound evolves from personal experience, which cannot be conveyed to others through sight. As such, to validate emotional experience is to trust that emotion, by its nature, is not a thing easily employed in deceit and manipulation because it acts faster than intentional behavior. In other words, when a person has an intense, extreme emotional response, it is rarely, if ever inspired bu ulterior motives. Therefore, it is more reasonable to conclude that self-harm and suicidal behavior are not really acts of manipulation, but rather dysfunctional means to communicate suffering to oneself and others. More simply, it is easier to communicate and accept suffering caused by physical injury than it is to communicate and accept suffering caused by emotional pain. Dialectical behavior therapy’s position is that in the case of emotional pain, you do not have to see it to believe it. You only have to be willing to trust that when someone tells you she is suffering; she is telling you the truth.
Suicidal Behavior Is an Attempt to Communicate Not Manipulate
However, learning to hurt oneself is rarely a result of motivated effort. It is not like learning to read which requires conscious focus and determination. Usually, it is an impulsive act that emerges impulsively when all else has failed. The pattern becomes established when, at last, after the person has inflicted physical harm upon herself, she receives the soothing support she wants, needs.
People who are repeatedly suicidal often get accused of being manipulative because threats or actions toward suicide lead loved ones to act in caring, compassionate way. If a person says he feels manipulated by suicidal behavior. Is he not likewise saying, “I did not want to be emotionally supportive, and she made me do it. She manipulated me into being gentle and compassionate when I really wanted to tell her to quit feeling sorry for herself.” It seems to me the problem is not necessarily that the suicidal person is manipulative or that the loved one is callous and insensitive, it is a fundamental issue of supply and demand. The suicidal person demands more emotional support than a loved one may be able or willing to give. It does not mean either person is bad or flawed. It just means there is a need for balance that is not being met, and judging those involved rarely leads to a reasonable, satisfying, or effective solution.
The Sixth Sense: Exploring Emotions & Myths
In American culture, exerting control over emotional expression is highly valued. And when we are unable to keep our emotions from being expressed, we feel we must apologize for it. How many of you have cried in front of others and not apologized for it afterward? One of the skills I am using to overcome emotional self-invalidation is the DBT skill, no apologies. While the behaviors that follow my emotions may, at times, call for an apology. Emotions are not the problem. It is the response to the emotion that is the problem. Emotions are physiological sensations, not intentional actions. So, here we have a real and true sixth sense that has yet to be acknowledged widely as such.
When emotions are unwanted or unusually intense, accepting, respecting, allowing the experience, instead of judging, suppressing, or denying is the key to overcoming distress. In dialectical behavior therapy, emotions receive the same nonjudgmental regard the other five human senses do. In fact, it emphasizes an intentional effort to distinguish a person’s emotional experience from a person’s emotional response to synthesize the dialectical perspective needed to change extreme behaviors. This is where the dialectical behavioral skill check the facts is particularly useful. By building knowledge of how emotions function one-mindfully, nonjudgmentally, effectively, observing each our own emotional experience, we may combine that experience with logic to access our wise mind.
The following flowcharts show how to check the facts of emotions and offer a variety of solutions that show how to synthesize acceptance and change that is the premise of all strategies and skills employed in dialectical behavior therapy.
Craig, Karen Jean. (2011). Heart attack.(Patient Education Series)(Disease/Disorder overview). Nursing, 41(12), 54.
Linehan, M. (2015). DBT skills training manual (Second ed.). New York: The Guilford Press, 159.