Chapter 17 – Understanding Emotions

Emotions are supposed to be guides that help us adapt our behavior to our circumstances. In dissociative disorders, that can pose a problem because you’ve probably learned to disconnected from your emotions as a survival skill.  

To regulate your own emotions effectively, first, you need to understand them. Welcome to chapter 17 of Coping with Trauma Related Dissociation by Suzette Boon, Kathy Steele and Onno Van Der Hart 😉

Basic Emotions and Their Functions

There are lots of emotion lists and diagrams out there; this book uses 8 paired in a range from mild to intense:

  1. Interest-Excitement
  2. Enjoyment-Joy
  3. Surprise-Startle
  4. Distress-Anguish
  5. Anger-Range
  6. Fear-Terror
  7. Shame-Humiliation
  8. Disgust

Since emotions are a reaction, there’s not a lot you can do to stop them. You also wouldn’t want to, since they’re still pretty important for your survival.

“One major function of emotion is to motivate and initiate behavior that is directed toward specific goals, that is, behavior that can meet our needs. For example, anger directs us to fight when we are provoked, hopefully keeping us safe; fear prompts us to run away or avoid something that is frightening or threatening; love directs us to behave in ways that draw us closer to the ones we love, because we need safe relationships.”

Emotions are connected strongly to perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors. If you’re angry at somebody you’re more likely to say something you’ll regret. Or if you’re experiencing fear, you’ll perceive the world as more threatening than it really is. Emotions change how you see the world, how you react to it, how you think, and how you behave.

Having Parts Makes it Harder

  • You learn to emotionally regulate from your caregivers. Your caregivers were likely abusive, without great emotional regulation skills themselves, so you didn’t learn anything useful.
  • In your childhood, emotions may have needed to be suppressed for safety reasons.
  • Intense emotions are often dissociated and compartmentalized into boxes, just like memories. This means some parts have very little actual experience with whole groups of emotions; they don’t know what fear even feels like, or they may have never experienced genuine love.
  • This lack of experience means emotions become all or nothing. For example, a part may struggle to differentiate between “apprehension” and “terror”.
  • Trauma-stuck parts are often super fucking scared, and will react to their own fear with a variety of different behaviors and coping skills. This is also true of parts who are afraid of being overwhelmed by emotions (their own, or other parts).
  • Dissociative parts judge each other, especially each others emotions.

So, what’s the cure? The book includes mindfulness exercises to practice for a week. If you don’t have the book, this cute video explains Mindfulness. I also like the apps 10% Happier and Headspace (they’re decent even if you don’t subscribe).

Homework this week includes questions that help you feel and identify your emotions. Fun questions such as “Name 2 emotions that you’re ashamed or afraid of”, and “describe an impulsive urge to act that you experience when faced with a difficult emotion”. It’s heartbreaking to journal your way through both exercises, and I highly recommend it.

Discussion Starters

Did you make it through the homework? Even if you only wrote a note like “fuck sadness, if I let it out it’ll never stop”, that counts.

Are some of your better at identifying emotions than others? How could those parts use that experience to help the others?

How do your little parts express their emotions? How can you help them express what they’re feeling, safely?

You got this.

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