For most of my life I was very shut down emotionally and expressively. “I don’t know” was the standard response to any question regarding what I felt. And when I did say anything it was mostly thoughtless and even obnoxious. Such opposites. The reasons for my emotional avoidance were and are many – primarily a hyper-sensitivity to criticism, and a fear of rejection – but they are nothing more than constructs and now have little authority.
Another of the DBT skills is Opposite Action, or Opposite to Emotion. I am living proof of this being effective.
A consequence of being emotionally shut down and overly sensitive was expressed one night in a small group setting. Someone asked a question and (seemingly) everyone looked to me to answer it. And I couldn’t. I could hardly form even a thought of how to answer it much less articulate anything. I though I had had a stroke. It was horrid. So I went and got a CT done and a nuclear stress test. All negative. I realized I had done this to myself; my sensitivity had blown up and I was operating under the control of fear – fear of being wrong no matter what I said or did and thus being criticized. Ironically the terrific test results did in fact prompt criticism. Since my lungs and heart were in such good shape the response was something like “Great, so now you’ll just keep smoking…”
The pattern of interpretation and meaning (not that I thought of it in those terms then) had created this shut down and fearful state of mind. So I decided to go completely opposite – if it popped into my head it was coming out my mouth. The full opposite meant that if I felt angry I would express it, and boy did I ever. The scene was our kitchen, and Saber had said something that made me mad. So I blew up, spewing language at full volume. I even threw something at her (that particular urge will be another topic) not with intention of hurting her but just as a physical expression of anger.
I realized that this behavior was just as unhelpful as the other, that I didn’t want to go from being a doormat to a person that others walked on eggshells around. So I had to back it off a bit. If the “stroke” event was a 2 (1 to 100) and the blow up was 99 (100 would have burnt the house down) some zone of openness, of authenticity had to be found.
Where I have landed is at about 85% “wide open.” Sometimes a bit more, sometimes less. That’s the hard part, trusting the sense to speak up or shut up. And it really is a function of trust; one of the hallmarks of the shut down Steve was that I didn’t trust myself. And I have had to learn how. It’s been messy and sometimes embarrassing, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning.
What I have really gained from being unfiltered is twofold: most importantly I no longer am afraid to express what I’m feeling. I’m better at knowing the emotions, so I’m less controlled by them and so can speak my mind. Of equal importance is how I do my work. I’m more of a “stream of consciousness” therapist. Those whose opinions I respect say this is my greatest gift. But I stay in my lane so to speak. I keep myself within the framework of always trying to keep the subject matter wrapped around the DBT skills and how to apply them.
Sometimes going fully opposite isn’t effective. It’s easy to go too far and thus create a vacuum of emotions and behavior; the opposite is too alien. So incremental movement needs to happen, small course corrections that increase perspective. Baby steps in the direction you want to go. Be patient! Learn to trust your intuition bit by bit. You will make mistakes and when you do, “well, sh*t” and learn from them. Apologize if it’s necessary, mean it, and learn. Over time not only does your general course change but your baseline too. Bit by bit you create the person you want to be.