I’ve been working with several of my clients lately to diagram their emotions. I think about emotional reactions as reasonable (in that the client has reasons for reacting the way that they do) and rational (meaning the reaction makes sense if you see things the way the client is seeing them) in most situations. By drawing out the chain of events, it becomes possible to consider ways of breaking that chain at each juncture to change outcomes.
This model, based on the model created by from Marsha Linehan, the psychologist who created Dialectic Behavior Therapy, is so useful for helping clients to see how their emotions are both caused BY and the cause OF their reactions. It’s a simplified version of Handout 5 from her DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, second edition.
I think we enter the cycle depicted in this model usually at Behaviors. By enter the cycle, I mean become aware that there’s even a cycle happening. Most people can notice that they’ve done something even if they’re entirely unaware of why they’ve done it or even that they were making a choice and responding to emotions when they do it.
I often think about my road rage example – I generally am not totally noticing how angry and stressed I’m feeling until I’ve already cut someone off or blocked someone from improperly merging at the last second in the exit only lane! But there were things happening well before the behavior and the ultimate goal is to break the chain somewhere before behavior to change the outcome of a given situation.
When working with clients, we start with the behavior and work backwards – ok, I was cutting someone off. What was I feeling at that point? Angry, obviously. But under the anger? Disrespected? Overlooked? Anxious about being late? Ok.
Now we go to what was I telling myself that made me feel that way? Probably there was a story about the other driver seeing me and thinking that I’m unimportant. Maybe also a story about how my trip is more valuable than the other driver’s trip? There is usually also a story about how a good mother would be on time.
That last one gets at my pre-existing vulnerabilities – I have a some pre-existing beliefs about myself as a mother and what a good mother would be. Largely based by my reaction to and learning from my own mother (who was generally late, but that’s a story for another time. It boils down to: I had to wait for her to arrive a lot – I was the last one picked up a majority of the time – and it felt bad so I never wanted my kids to feel that way).
So the prompting event? Running late or driving to activities in general! That one was easy.
Finally, I ask how they feel when they realize the behavior – to return to my road rage example – ashamed and embarrassed. Which then makes me irritable and we start a new cycle of reacting to the shame and embarrassment…
Why do I do this with clients? Because in looking at the road rage example, I can change the outcome – shame and embarrassment – by changing any of the steps along the way to that outcome. I can pause before I act on the behavioral urge and choose a different behavior – controlled breathing or distraction are good ones in the car. I can challenge the narrative that the other drivers are disrespecting me (by realizing that they probably aren’t thinking about me at all and seeking other information – how do I know they’re not driving a woman in labor to the hospital and need to get there more than I need to get from piano to soccer?). I can reduce the prompting events by simplifying my kids’ schedules (that one’s HARD!).
The pink box in the middle is helpful if you want to recognize the emotion – I started getting control of my emotions in the car by observing the changes in my body language when I was experiencing the emotions – clenched hands and racing heartbeat – those involuntary physical changes that occur because of my feelings about the narrative I’m spinning in my head about the situation I’m in. Those can be almost as easy to spot as the behavior and can also provide a way to break the chain and a clue to what we’re actually feeling…
OR, and this is where we’re headed in therapy – I can reduce my pre-existing vulnerabilities by trying to be kinder to myself as a mother and more forgiving of my own mother for her lateness by acknowledging that we’re all just doing our best and that a good mother isn’t one who’s always on time if that means they’re a raging monster to get there!