4D Understanding Emotions

This page talks about ‘understanding your emotions’, one of the DBT ‘emotion regulation’ skills.  Understanding your emotions is a valuable skill in itself, but it also provides the foundation for developing the other elements within this skill set.

Firstly, some important information about emotions:

There are many different emotions, examples include:

Emotions as emoticons


Emotions are something that we all experience; most emotions only last for a very short time (just seconds or minutes).

Emotions are a response to either:

  • what’s happening around us (happy that your sister is having a new baby)
  • the way we are thinking and feeling (shame at not doing well in a test)

Most events don’t automatically cause an emotional response, instead it is the way we choose to look at it (in other words our interpretation of the event) that causes the emotion.  For example, if something happens, which triggers a thought about something that made us feel bad in the past, we are more likely to experience an automatic negative emotion to this new event.

 There are two types of emotional experience:

  • primary, our first emotional response to a situation, thought or feeling
  • secondary, a second emotion triggered by the first; e.g. feeling guilty over being angry with your friend

An important role of emotions is to communicate to ourselves and others:

  • Our body and mind are closely connected; this means that emotions can trigger physical sensations and at the same time physical sensations can trigger emotions.  With mindful awareness, you can physically notice your emotions as you experience them.
  • Emotions tell us how we feel about something and they urge us to act in certain ways.

Thoughts-Feeling-Behaviour Cycle

  • We communicate our emotions to others, through our body language (the way we are sitting, the expression on our face, etc), the words we use (‘I’m scared’, ‘I’m happy’), the actions we take (hugging someone, hiding from someone).

So, emotions (positive and negative) can be very useful; but, when we experience lots of negative emotions, and we experience them intensely or have difficulties getting over them, they can be harmful to us.

Negative emotions might come from feelings of:

    • Extreme sadness
    • Stress
    • Anxiety and fear
    • Depression
    • Anger
    • Shame

For some people, a negative emotion can easily trigger a secondary emotion, which can:

    • be much more painful than the primary emotion
    • be more intense and more difficult to let go of
    • shift your focus away from the primary emotion, making it harder for you to clearly see and understand the initial problem
    • make it hard for you to make sense of how to act to improve the situation.

Negative emotions are not bad, they are something we all experience, but it is important to learn to understand and manage negative emotions so that they don’t become overwhelming, trigger secondary emotions or create urges to act or behave in ways that are harmful to us.

So, what does this mean for us?

Well, it is about learning to look at our emotions in all dimensions, to build a more rounded picture.  Being able to understand our emotions, by learning how to observe and describe the emotions we experience, as we experience them, is an important part of taking charge of them.  It allows us to understand what the emotion is, how it was triggered, the urges it creates and the possible consequences of acting on those urges.  Mindful awareness of our emotions allows us to use ‘Wise Mind’ to better manage our emotions, so that we are able to respond to situations more effectively.

Opposite emotion cycle

So, how can you understand your emotions?

In DBT, you understand your emotions, through having mindful awareness of your current emotions – observing and describing them without judgement.  Put simply, this means:

  • notice the emotion you are feeling here and now
  • practice recognising which emotion you are experiencing in the moment
  • describe it, put it into words (this can help you to see more clearly which emotion you are experiencing)
  • give the emotion a label, be specific in the words you use e.g. anger or excitement
  • notice that you are not your emotions
  • remind yourself that emotions are natural, they are useful and they will pass
  • don’t judge your emotion, don’t get caught up on thoughts about every other time you have felt this way
  • just notice the emotion for what it is and be accepting of it

The more you can identify your current emotions, the more skilled you will be at being able to manage them.

My 4D Toolkit Activity

This game of bingo with the grand prize of being able to better recognise and understand you emotions is a real winner.  Simply cross off the keywords as you notice yourself experiencing the feeling.

Emotional Bingo download button


Related Pages: Emotion Regulation, Reduce emotional vulnerability, Decrease emotional suffering

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