I had my Individual session today with my DBT coach and I learned something new about myself. I probably shouldn’t be surprised since I often do learn something new. But today it was one of those ‘whoa’ moments for me.
Whenever I am confronted with uncomfortable emotions: fear, sadness, anger, shame, etc., I do whatever it takes to get rid of the emotion. I will avoid it, suppress it, squash it, whatever it takes to not feel it, I will do because the emotions scare me. They scare me in their intensity and I worry that if I sit with the emotion it will become too overwhelming and I won’t be able to handle it.
When the emotion pops up I will almost immediately go into a secondary and typically a tertiary emotion in an effort to not feel the primary one. It’s quite remarkable actually because if I feel sad I will immediately go to anger and shortly thereafter to shame or fear or both. If I feel anger I will immediately go to sadness and shortly thereafter to fear or shame or both. I end up with shame and fear, a lot. It’s overwhelming as the emotions pile on and my anxiety will grow and at that point I am beyond skills and into distress and this is where I turn to my coping methods. Destructive as they are, they work in helping me move into numbness and often dissociation. I become almost zombie-like in my perception and I feel pretty much nothing. And I will stay in this phase from hours to weeks depending on the situation. I usually come out of it relatively on my own but it takes much, much longer when I wait it out then if I am getting help at the time.
Like today, talking to my DBT coach and she took me back to the moment where I started to feel the current zombie phase I’m in and it was the oddest thing because I thought my primary emotion was anger and when she walked me through the moments it turns out I actually felt sad in the primary emotion. At first I wondered why she kept telling me to go back. I closed my eyes and went back to the triggering situation and I told her I was mad at myself and yet as she had me go through what I did, saw, and felt, I started crying.
I had to stop for a moment because I hadn’t recalled feeling sad at all. I remembered standing at my bathroom sink, getting mad and stepping out of the bathroom. But apparently for a split second before that I felt sad. Because I went through it moment by moment I felt the initial sadness but it was gone so fast, all I remember was the anger.
This was an eye opener for me because I truly did not recall feeling sad. Even going through the moments the sadness lasted seconds. And this is where I learned something new about myself. She said to me that my mind was so trained at switching from the initial primary emotion that I literally will feel it in my body for just a second before my defence mechanism kicks in and takes everything I feel in that second-emotionally, physically, and mentally-and I shut it down, bringing in a secondary or tertiary emotion instead to deal with. Somehow believing that those other emotions are easier to deal with, which in part is true because they aren’t the real emotion. This defence mechanism is so fine tuned that I literally cannot recall the primary emotion. Without help, anyway.
When she said this to me I just stared at her. I thought it was remarkable. I couldn’t believe I had become so adept at not sitting with the emotion that comes up that I immediately move to something that feels “easier” to deal with and I actually lose the conscious realization of the very first emotion I felt in the situation.
It took me literally going second by second of the situation to be able to recall the very first initial primary emotion. It felt like an ‘a-ha!’ moment because I had no idea I was that fast about it. I was well aware that I had a few emotions going on with any given situation but to the point of actually unconsciously losing the first emotion altogether. That was totally new.
I cried for a bit because I sat with the sadness for a bit but I could only tolerate it for a short time. With my DBT coach’s guidance I was able to get through it, she guided me through as I went off on a tangent and she patiently repeatedly brought me back to sit with it. So I ended up crying a little. But learning how fast my defence moves in to shut it down was remarkable.
It certainly makes a lot of sense as to why I often am unsure of why I am feeling what I feel. Because I’m dealing with emotions in response to the first emotion. No wonder I feel so overwhelmed and tired.
It will take some time for me to become more in tune with my primary emotion as it comes up because I have no idea how to stop it. So for now it will need to be done in retrospect through chain or behaviour analysis. But at least now I know. At least now I can try to stop before going into the secondary or tertiary emotion and try going back to figure out the primary emotion.
It’s a little frustrating to learn this about myself but I can see why I do it. It worked for me, sort of. In the moment, I suppressed it from taking me over because I believed that was what would happen if I just let myself sit with it. It’s not called a defence mechanism for nothing.
Hopefully this will be the first step to being able to better manage my emotions and using the skills and not turning to a zombie and destructive behaviours.