Most of my life was spent avoiding painful emotions, any dip in mood was met with a frantic increase in activity, avoidance and, frankly physically and emotionally draining 'coping mechanisms'which, if I'm honest, weren't particularly effective. At the time those coping skills, poor as they were in the long term, actually helped me to 'function'. The problem came as the cumulative effect of using my 'coping skills' became self destructive. I felt I had to keep using them because I was so in fear of the huge torrent of grief that had been dammed up for decades, that I believed my very life depended on me stopping myself from feeling, ANYTHING.
As I have described elsewhere in this blog, the use of those coping skills resulted in me being unable to feel anything. I had reached the point where not only was I lacking in any energy to keep going, but as my GP told me, if we looked under the 'bonnet' I would find that I had long been trying to function without 'any engine at all'.
Over the past five years since that point, I have slowly built up different sets of skills and found out that the huge emotional breakers I have feared for so long didn't kill me. It has not been an easy process, developing skills takes time, effort and determination. One of the first set of skills essential for me to learn and practice were the distress tolerance skills. If I know I am equipped to cope with the feelings I fear so much, then my very existence no longer depends on preventing myself from feeling.
As time has gone on, the importance of Distress Tolerance has reduced in proportion to the number of times I find myself in crisis. The second set of skills which dovetailed into the first was the Emotion Regulation Skills. In practice, the ability to identify and name the feelings I feared so much was one of the most important points in turning the corner from the way I had lived for so long. Rather than sitting frozen in fear of a fog of indefinable feelings, I can name my 'demons' and once named the sting is taken from them.
The sets of DBT skills along with the routine practice of Mindfulness have helped me to stop the constant rise and fall of difficult emotions, to give myself time experience them, without living in constant fear of being overwhelmed by them, so that I am able to effectively manage relationships which for so long were damaged and broken by the uncontrolled impact of my emotions.
The most vital fact I have needed to face up to is that I cannot escape emotions. Simply because they are part and parcel of being human, and I am in fact a human being, contrary to how alienated my emotional responses have made me feel. Emotions are an important part of the way I am built. All emotions have a function and actually are beneficial.
I have had to adjust my thinking about emotions from seeing them as some internal monster, ready at any point to wreak havoc on my life. As someone who, due to biological and social, environmental factors, is more emotionally sensitive than average, emotions have always loomed large. Due to the experience of trauma in childhood, there has been a significant amount of grief to manage. In the past that grief has been unresolved because most of my energy was focused on avoiding feeling it. If I cannot identify the grief, and name it, it can connect in an endless stream with any difficulties, or sadness I am feeling in the present. My baseline emotion is at a higher level than average, that means that I have always struggled with a high degree of underlying grief and sadness. So, it is understandable that even the most seemingly insignificant trigger to grief in the present may well lead to overwhelming waves of grief.
It has taken me three years of working on DBT skills to understand this about myself. If I struggle to understand why my responses are so extreme, how hard then, must it be for those around me? I think sometimes, this is what makes me feel like an alien, even when in the most supportive of company. I am only just beginning to be able to articulate this process for myself.
As I have moved along the path of recovery, I am learning to recognise sadness as an emotion in its own right. Rather than try to avoid feeling it, for fear of it connecting with the overwhelming grief of the past, I am learning to accept it for what it is in the here and now. The past and its experiences are done with. Sometimes I may still feel an echo of the grief of the past, but I no longer need to fear it as massive, rolling breaker, rising threatening above my head. The waves of sadness are more manageable as a result. Not only do I now possess the skills to manage my emotions, but I have learned to accept even sadness as an important part of being a human being. It's okay to feel sad, because sometimes there are things in the here and now to be sad about, and that's okay.