If your family members or coworkers have intense emotions, chances are you know it. But you may not know the most effective way to interact with them. In fact, during an altercation, you may feel like you spiral out of control as much as they do.
Parenting a Child with Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts and Aggressive Behaviors, written by Pat Harvey and Jeanine Penzo, provides insight that helps us see ourselves and others in a new light. Whether we're dealing with an intensely emotional child or adult, the relationship dynamic is often unhealthy because of judgments and assumptions we don't even realize we're making. For instance, we may perceive a person's actions to be a form of manipulation when they're really that person's response to fear. In this instance, we would be reacting to a person who was afraid as if that person was intentionally manipulating us.
This book operates on a few basic premises. When it comes to regulating our emotions, we're each born with different abilities. Given the opportunity, all of us would prefer to be able to process our emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Those who experience emotional dysregulation aren't trying to be disruptive, they are simply using behaviors that have been effective in getting their needs met. If these individuals are taught more effective ways of getting their needs met, they will use them. People with emotional dysregulation are often not able to transfer skills from one situation to another; they must lean how to apply behaviors in each new situation.
Harvey and Penzo point out that poor communication makes it more difficult for the person with intense emotions to make a connection between her behaviors and others' reactions. Here are three examples from a chart they provide comparing phrases that judge (ineffective) with phrases that describe (effective).
Judge: That is not appropriate behavior.
Describe: Your behavior (for example, huffing out of the room instead of talking about the problem) is ineffective and will not help you get what you want.
Judge: [You are] very disruptive.
Describe: [You] interrupt [your] sisters (co-workers) when they're doing their homework (paperwork).
Judge: You're terrific.
Describe: I really like that you share things with me and listen when I ask you to do something.
As therapists, we can think of judging statements as being similar to labeling a person by her diagnosis (stroke patient or amputee) rather than specifically describing how that affliction limits her abilities. Judging statements are subjective and can feel very personal, especially if the label used is negative (manipulative, disruptive, difficult, lazy). However, when we objectively describe the limitations (she can't get out of bed by herself), we can make a plan to overcome them. We still identify the negative but express it in a way that shows we have confidence in that person's ability to overcome her challenges with the right resources.
Throughout my life, I've dealt with people, both personally and professionally, who have difficulty regulating their intense emotions. I can't say I agree with 100 percent of what Harvey and Penzo say, but there is enough sound takeaway in this book to make it a worthwhile read. Whether you're dealing with intense emotions at home or at work, this book will give you a fresh perspective to help you deal more effectively with your own emotions or with the emotions of those around you.