The #1 Mistake That’s Harming Your Relationships

Whether we are talking about relationships with friends, parents or significant others, there is a disturbing communication trend I’ve been seeing in my office and in the world lately. I call it….”taking away people’s pain”.  If you or someone you know struggles with this, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or DBT may be helpful for you. 

This trend typically starts when we are young. Our parents unknowingly interact with us this way. We learn to be afraid of our feelings and pain from a young age. For example, the most common responses to a child when they scrape their knee or fall on the playground are “Shhhh, you’re okay, don’t cry.”

Although the parent has the best motives and is simply trying to calm the child down and assure her, the subliminal message is don’t express your emotions. This often stems from a parent that is uncomfortable with a child’s emotions or even may fear them. Society also reinforces this idea that emotions are bad or something to be avoided. We praise people for “being strong” when going through hardships. We are a culture obsessed with positivity and looking at the bright side. Feeling sad is looked at as self-indulgent.

People Avoid Their Emotions Out of Discomfort

I see this all the time in my office. Not only in sessions with families and couples, where people are so uncomfortable with other people’s pain, they switch subjects, offer solutions or shift uncomfortably in their seats but also in individual therapy. Women on my couch are ashamed or even scared of their own emotions.

Somewhere along the way, our society has begun to teach people that emotions and tears are shameful. What’s the result? We disconnect from our emotions, hide from them or engage in other activities to avoid. This can lead to substance use disorders or eating disorders. In addition, we experience reactions to our reactions, such as being angry or disgusted by our emotions.

a woman writing in a blank notebook or journal.

Primary and Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions are our reaction to our emotions. They are emotional responses we have to our emotions.  Primary emotions are our primal reaction to an event or situation. There are 8 primary emotions: Anger, Sadness, Fear, Joy, Interest, Surprise, Disgust and Shame. These are hardwired into our brain upon birth. These emotions cause your body to react in a certain way and for you to feel a certain urge upon feeling this emotion.

All other emotions are secondary emotions, and they are created out our own emotional response to a primary emotion. Unsurprisingly, most people’s problems and issues they come to discuss in counseling are not primary emotions. They are secondary emotions. This is something we discuss in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, also known as DBT. DBT is a type of therapy that teaches you how to tolerate all your emotions.

For example, a woman comes to my office and is angry at herself about how sad she is about her boyfriend cheating on her. We cannot process the pain of her boyfriend’s betrayal until we process and release her own anger at herself.

​Since many people are unable to be present with their own emotions and often suppress them, it’s not surprise that people are equally intolerable of other people’s emotions. This leads us to “take away other people’s pain“. It is one of the most costly things you can do in any relationship. It does not matter whether it is with your child, your partner or yourself. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy can help you resist this urge to avoid your emotions or other people’s emotions and instead learn to accept and tolerate the discomfort.

If you are not sure if this applies to you, some common examples of avoiding your or other people’s emotions are…

  • Giving people solutions to their problems rather than sitting and listening 
  • Immediately upon seeing someone tear up/ become emotional, hug them, shush them, tell them “don’t cry”, or try to calm them down
  • Walk away or refuse to engage with someone who is crying or being “too emotional”
  • Telling someone to excuse themselves if they have an emotional reaction
  • Shaming yourself for having an emotional reaction, forbidding yourself from crying or feeling your emotions 
  • Telling someone how they should feel in a given situation, or trying to help them “be positive” or “see the silver lining” in a situation 

All these are signs that we struggle to tolerate our own or another person’s emotions, which means we could benefit from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. In this type of therapy we learn how to “urge surf” our emotions. We learn how to get better at sitting with and processing our emotions instead of reacting to them.

In closing, emotions are normal, natural responses in human beings and it is important to treat them as such. The more we try to hide from our emotions, the more emotionally unhealthy we will feel. Furthermore, it is then more difficult it will be to support others in our life. It’s time we stop shaming ourselves for our natural human experience. To be human is to have the capacity to feel emotions. 

If this is something you are struggling with, we can help!

If you would like more support, be sure to reach out to us to learn more or schedule a session with one of our therapists who specializes in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.