“Whatever you’re feeling, it will eventually pass. You won’t feel sad forever. At some point, you will feel happy again. You won’t feel anxious forever. In time, you will feel calm again. You don’t have to fight your feelings or feel guilty for having them. You just have to accept them and be good to yourself while you ride this out. Resisting your emotions and shaming yourself will only cause you more pain, and you don’t deserve that. You deserve your own love, acceptance, and compassion.” ~Lori Deschene
One cry a day. I have used this four-word phrase to defend my personality for over a decade.
“I always cry at least once a day,” I explain in jest to a new co-worker who is watching in bewilderment as tears roll down my cheeks. She is surprised that letting me cut her in the restroom line elicited such an emotional response. I assure her that the tears are not “bad” and it is not her “fault.” In fact, crying is frequently my go-to response to relatively arbitrary, fleeting moments.
Whatever the emotion, whether it be joy, gratitude, surprise, fear, sadness… you name it, I’ll cry it. The tendency to cry is not a recently acquired characteristic. I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. I now know that I was born with an emotionally sensitive temperament; however, as a child, I was like, “What is happening to me?!”
My first memory of being overpowered by emotions is from the day my younger sister was born.
When I was six years old, my mom was pregnant with her fourth child. I was tired of being the female meat patty sandwiched between two male bread slices (my brothers), and I fantasized about having a baby sister. On September 14, 1995, Mimi, Aunt Sheila, Eddie, Joe, and I sat around the dining room table in the kitchen of my childhood home in Southern California while my mom and dad were in the hospital.
I (im)patiently awaited the life-changing news, and the phone rang after what seemed like hours. My Aunt Sheila answered and quickly exclaimed, “It’s a girl!” She held my small hands, and we jumped up and down.
I quickly noticed something odd… I was sobbing. What the heck was happening? I thought I wanted a baby sister?! With tears streaming down my face, I looked up to my aunt with fear in my eyes, “Why am I crying?” Aunt Sheila crouched down, smiled gently, and assured me that my tears were not the “bad” kind—these were happy tears.
This moment taught me that there are different types of cries and, more importantly, highlighted a greater personal truth: I am a very emotional person. I do not believe that I have overactive tear ducts; the crying is a concrete representation of my emotions. I follow those tears—my emotions guide me.
High sensitivity is a quality that many possess, especially therapists. “It is good to be in touch with my emotions,” I remind myself during my daily cry. “It’s why I can do the work that I do.”
Growing up, emotional sensitivity impacted my daily life, mainly because big feelings are typically connected to thoughts, physiological sensations, action urges, and behaviors. Big emotions can feel like a tornado whirling me up. Sometimes, the ability to genuinely experience these emotions is exhilarating. Who wouldn’t want to be the girl simultaneously tearing up and jumping up and down because she is so overwhelmingly excited to hear Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”?
Though the flow of tears can be a response to nearly any emotion, I often cry because I am experiencing a less pleasant one. These more difficult feelings are the other side of the girl who is beyond elated because a kind soul allowed her to cut the bathroom line. Unfortunately, humans can’t pick and choose feelings, so I get the wanted ones with the unwanted ones.
At some point during high school, “one cry a day” was no longer a mantra but a benchmark to aspire to: to cry only one time in twenty-four hours. Such emotional reactivity was too much for my self-conscious teenage self. The intensity of the emotion was now coupled with shame and embarrassment.
I believed I was getting too old to respond so emotionally to situations that were “no big deal.” A running internal monologue informed me that everyone around me had more self-control. My inability to handle my emotions was a clear sign that something was seriously wrong with me.
Riding a daily rollercoaster of emotion was exhausting—exhilarating highs were quickly followed by stomach-dropping lows. By the end of high school, I had discovered that I could mediate these ups and downs through a series of behaviors that developed into an eating disorder.
Over the next two years, the quick tricks became compulsive obsessions, steadily increasing in frequency; in time, I needed the eating disorder rituals to function because, without them, the emotional intensity of my daily experience was too much.
In college, I struggled to leave my room, go to class, or socialize with friends without the help of my little friend E.D. (short for eating disorder). After realizing that, despite my desperate determination, I could not stop these behaviors, I begrudgingly went to see a school counselor.
Through weekly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions beginning my sophomore year of college, I learned that the eating disorder had very little to do with food or weight; it was a way of coping. CBT taught me that my thoughts and feelings about myself led to my actions.
Even after a year of CBT, my understanding of my emotional sensitivity and eating disorder was limited. I was still engaging in eating disorder behaviors on occasion, my relapses correlating to stress levels, and after a tumultuous transition to New York City—nearly ten years after I first developed my eating disorder—the frequency of disordered thoughts and behaviors escalated to a crippling peak. E.D. had won the decade-long game of tug o’ war; my consolation prize was intensive eating disorder treatment.
In treatment, I was introduced to the ultimate game-changer: dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
American psychologist Marsha Linehan (1993) developed DBT in the early 1990s as a treatment for women diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT is an approach to therapy that combines behavioral sciences and Zen practices, proposing that pathology is rooted in an inability to regulate emotion.
Though I considered myself to be in touch with my emotions, DBT taught me that I was actively resisting and engaging them, which increased the intensity of the painful feelings. The avoidance resulted in an undercurrent of persistent emotional overloading, leading to increased behaviors—the unending cycle felt impenetrable and unbreakable.
The philosophy of DBT rang true for me, providing me with a compassionate understanding of my emotional vulnerability and the intense shame that I carried as a result of my sensitivity. During treatment, I developed new ways to tolerate and regulate emotion, which ultimately helped me to break the relentless cycle that I felt stuck in before treatment. I learned to ride the waves of my feelings.
While sharing all of the amazing things I’ve learned in treatment and as a therapist is not within this blog post’s scope, I want to discuss my five favorite skills from DBT and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is like a sister therapy of DBT, and it’s great because it teaches us to stop fighting our feelings.
1. Stop and notice.
When intense feelings come roaring in, hit the brakes. Take a moment to identify what’s happening inside you.
Ask yourself: What emotion am I experiencing? What physical sensations am I feeling (like that knot in your stomach or a racing heart)? Where in my body do I feel these sensations? What thoughts are taking center stage? What are my instincts pushing me to do?
Remember, the goal isn’t to label your emotions perfectly; it’s simply to hit pause and observe. This empowers you to make choices rather than having emotions dictate your actions. Initially, this can be very difficult because we may feel like we are in a tornado of thoughts, sensations, and urges. Keep practicing—it becomes easier over time.
2. Describe nonjudgmentally.
Articulate your inner experiences using factual, nonjudgmental language. It’s like talking out loud to an impartial observer.
For instance, say, “I’m having the thought that things are hard,” or “I’m experiencing a pounding sensation in my chest.”
Remember: When we are emotional, we want to judge ourselves (i.e., “I shouldn’t be feeling this way!”). Do your best to notice when you are judging your experiences as “good” or “bad.” Judgments often fuel emotional reactivity. By sticking to the facts, you are taking steps to regulate your emotions.
3. Try “defusing.”
Defusion is my favorite skill from ACT! It’s a made-up word that teaches us how to create space between our internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, memories, images) and who we are.
When working with clients, I ask them to think about their emotions as tinted sunglasses. When they feel a big feeling, they see the world through that emotion. Defusion is taking off those shades! You deliberately look at your emotions (like a scientist observing a lab experiment), rather than looking through your feelings (like a person with sunglasses on seeing only a tinted version of the world). There are many defusion strategies, but I encourage you to try this one:
Say, “I am having the feeling of… [insert any emotion, mad-lib style].”
By naming the emotion separate from yourself, you start to “defuse it.” In other words, the language of “I’m having the…” helps you step back and creates space between you and your feelings. This simple act can reduce the intensity of the emotion.
4. Drop the struggle.
Picture this: your emotions are like waves in the ocean. Trying to change or escape them is like trying to stop the waves. It’s exhausting and, ultimately, futile. Dropping the struggle is about letting go of the fight against your thoughts and emotions. Instead of resisting or distracting yourself, accept these internal experiences as part of being human.
When you drop the struggle, you allow emotions to be. It’s not an easy task, but it’s incredibly liberating. You prevent emotions from growing larger and maintain control over your actions.
5. Do what you really want.
You’ve got emotions telling you to do this or that. But what do you truly want? This is where values come into play. Values are your guiding stars, reflecting what you want to be about. When your actions align with your values, you experience a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Discovering your values helps you know what steps to take, especially when big emotions come knocking. It’s like having a personalized roadmap for life’s emotional rollercoaster.
These tools helped me, and I hope you also benefit from them.
About Mary Kate Roohan
Dr. Mary Kate Roohan (she/her) is a licensed psychologist and drama therapist living in California. She uses techniques from a variety of therapeutic modalities, including ACT, DBT, EMDR, and creative arts therapy, to empower her clients to live how they WANT to live. Interested in more strategies to help you manage big emotions? Sign up for a free guide on how to be the boss of your feelings.
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