Emotions in Crisis: Choices, Steps to Take and What You Can Do About It

If you’re looking for real skills and steps to take as you leave a relationship or life change behind you – or the courage to make a real decision, then this is a great place to start.  There is this form of therapy that I’ve been studying over the past year for several reasons; in fact, it’s become my new “therapeutic choice” of methods to help my clients when I see them professionally as an intern therapist.  I mention it here, in our forum of self help, for a very specific reason.

Emotions in Crisis.

Life is painted by the choices and decisions that we make for ourselves, as well as the influence of others decisions that impact us.  We all make choices when we are in crisis, some sound and some not so great.  My colleagues who introduced me to DBT or “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy” did me a great service – for in this DBT model, I have found very sound cognitive steps we can take in times of crisis to work our way through and out.  In many cases, I have found that restructuring my own thoughts using DBT has proven the most effective way for me to experience good mental health.  That can be a challenge for us all, making sound and healthy decisions that aren’t led by our emotions, but formed by them.  Let me introduce you to a fictional situation that closely resembles many of the letters and email I receive here at THM.  Please, note that if it sounds like I am describing you, I am being very general as I am informed by hundreds of people who suffer in a like state.

I would be remiss not to tell you upfront that this is a non-inclusive “self help” article   It should never be used in place of a real, licensed therapist who can address your specific situation and conditions.  As always, if you feel that you’re a danger to yourself or someone else, reach out to a trusted authority, doctor, hospital, friend.  Don’t suffer alone.

We’re a large group, we brave souls who are learning to love ourselves in healthy, non-drama-laden, sound lives.  Many of us struggle with control of our emotions  and fight to break free of patterns of abuse. For some who already suffer from lack of control in emotion, or who are “in love” with an addict….. this may hit a little close to home.  Hang in there, we’re going to spend several articles learning some real skills to help us manage crisis moments, come to decisions that we can live with in a healthy way – to take your life to the level of emotional health and freedom.

Just as a note, I am using addiction to alcohol as a template because it is so very, very common in relationship issues.  If you wonder about your level of (or someone else) addiction, please click here for a simple, free test.   I also provided a link in the text to addiction related documents that I didn’t want to try to outline for this already to long article.

The Background Story (Fictional, But Realistic.)

The Couple: John and Jane

Jane Doe is a mid thirties, divorced mother of one child, age 11. She has been in a romantic relationship with John, a divorced male age 45, for more than a year, and has been acquainted with him for nearly three years.  They met at a time in life when both were hurt from other failed relationships.  They slowly bonded over life changes, situations and self medicating behaviors such as drinking to excess.  John and Jane are not involved in business or social lives that interconnect. They live in separate residences in different communities, and must work toward quality time together.

When “others” see John and Jane, they look like a happy, well adjusted couple.  Jane honestly, deeply loves John, knows his deepest feelings, thoughts and fears as no one else has.  John reports that Jane is “like no other love in his life,” and believes that he places her above nearly everything else.  They hold great respect for one another, and a deep sense of kinship and friendship   They are newly engaged, and in deep relationship trouble.

The Crisis Issue:  Relationship Problem

While Jane participated in the relationship and the excesses willingly for the first two months, she was very clear that her preferences to continue the excess were becoming more limited.  As the relationship became more committed, Jane expressed her concerns regarding John’s daily consumption of alcohol typically resulting in an impaired state each night, with marked increase of drinking on weekends.  John predominately drinks a great deal after work, and almost always at home, alone. During these times of consumption, John changes the timbre, tone and content of his speech; he often became loud and aggressive “without realizing it.”   John denies addiction to alcohol and being alcoholic  he insists that he drinks daily “because he enjoys it.”  John does not maintain close friendships with his colleagues or peers, and has limited his non-work activities because of his preference to consume alcohol from the time he arrives home and throughout the evening.

In the past, John’s drinking has resulted in accidental, physical harm to another member of his immediate family, as well as near life threatening physical trauma to himself, and damage to property.  He is unable to admit that his drinking caused the accident, but accepts full responsibility for hurting his family member.  His deep sorrow and regret are very evident. However, when his family intervenes in his continued drinking, their attempts to curb or halt his drinking, are met with solid resistance and anger.

Jane has been in personal denial about John’s drinking for some time. John uses the classic addictive statement “I do not need it, I can stop any time.  I just like it.”  When he is not drinking, John is hard working and well respected in his technical field. He is inventive, kind, open and is willing to give freely of himself to almost anyone.  He claims that drinking daily helps him “unwind, relax” and turn off his mind.  John is resistant to seeking therapeutic help, and does not intend to stop his daily consumption of alcohol, although he did attempt to limit it for a short time.

Historically, Jane suffers from bouts with depression, and with personality issues that include fear of abandonment, black and white thinking, emotional dysregulation, some episodes of extreme impulsivity, etc. She has a history of relationships with men who are addicted to substances.  Jane noted that these are not healthy traits, and sought therapeutic counseling to address her desired changes.  Jane has issues from her past including being the child of divorce, and the child of an alcoholic parent. She includes a history of trauma with her former husband, who was abusive, in her dialogue with the therapist.  She also identifies herself as having “low self worth, and an inability to follow through.”

After ten months of therapy, Jane was certain that she had a conflicting issue in her relationship.  While she loves John, she does not want to be involved with an alcoholic.  She feels guilty for forming her relationship based on their shared use of alcohol  and she no longer wants to self medicate to avoid her problems. Her relationship with John was becoming more strained as she ignored his obvious signs of intoxication, choosing to believe he was “tired” as reported.  She noted that her personality was more under stress, resulting in less emotional health, increased emotional changes, anger and some self harm behaviors.  Her depression increased.  Those losses in her emotional health were intensified when she used alcohol.   She ceased the activity after starting therapy, and maintained low to no use of alcohol during the remaining three months.

Part of the decision we must make is knowing what is a real “emergency” and what is an indicator that we’re going down an unhealthy path.

Attempts to Resolve the Crisis

John and Jane have discussed many facets of their relationship openly, honestly. John’s addiction to drinking alcohol had brought the couple to the brink of ending the relationship several times, always ending with his promise to curtail his intoxication.

In “non drinking” times,  Jane confided in John her concerns for her emotional health, and the type of future she desired for herself and her child.  John spoke openly to Jane about his feelings, expressed deep commitment and love for their union (specifically for her) and dedicated himself to the relationship.  Much of the time, Jane finds John engaging and worthwhile.  Over time, Jane noticed that John’s cognitive and language abilities are sharply impacted by decades of heavy drinking  which becomes apparent after very few drinks.  She learned that John’s former wife ended their relationship in large part due to John’s continual use of alcohol. She was dismayed when she realized that  John’s children grew up with a father who was drunk most nights of their lives.  Although she talked with him about the complications and costs of drinking, John attributed his use to physical pain from his work, and emotional pain from the marital discord he lived with.

John and Jane discussed his drinking in calm and not so calm ways; in her high moments of emotionalism  Jane even cries and begs him to stop. Eventually Jane coerced John to  agree to a reduction in consumption.  John tentatively reduced his consumption, but regularly violated their agreement.  Jane requested no contact with John when he breached the daily limit of drinks.  Again, after a short compliance with her desire to not engage in any conversation with him when he was inebriated, John elected to make or accept contact while drunk.

The Decision – Crisis Point

Jane reached a point of decision when she found John, having hurt himself (not life threatening), appearing noticeably drunk on a Sunday afternoon.  She elected to cease communication for the remainder of the day, and after considering how she felt about his obvious addiction, to end her relationship with John.  She did not give John a chance to engage in discussion as she had in times past.

John, noting that Jane removed herself from their conversation  proceeded to drink heavily for the next three days, including the purchase/consumption of beverages he was avoiding because of extreme alcoholic content.  Jane understood his reaction to be both unhealthy, and indicative of the life they would share if she persisted in her relationship.

Her crisis came in realizing that letting go of John included letting go of a person who was a wonderful friend, a respected soul and the object of her deep love.  She also understood that John’s relationship to his addiction preceded any commitment he would make to her.  She consulted her therapist with concerns that included “How do I walk away and know that I’ve done the right thing?” and “Is it wrong not to talk this out with him again?”

TODAY: Jane’s feelings are overwhelming.  She is relying on her skills training to reduce her anxiety, and to calm her emotions. Still, she finds herself feeling intensely distraught, in a form of withdrawal  and intensely focused on her choice to end her relationship.

Applying What We Know

So here we have it, parts and pieces of stories that we all know so well.  The real rub for Jane is that John is a stand up sort of guy most of the time….and if you’re working out the end of a relationship, I bet that you recognize your ex isn’t all bad or all good.

Is it okay to say goodbye?

Many of us might say “stick it though and be there for him as he goes to AA.”  Maybe if there was a decade of marriage or a child there, staying would have different meanings…but not for us in this situation. The “problem” for the relationship is the potential for abuse and misery ~ John doesn’t think that he’s got a problem~ and for him, maybe it’s not. Even after Jane broke off their engagement, John continued to drink without pause.  Logically, a non-addict would see the conflict of interest and permanently cease the elective behavior that caused the problem…. willingly, as a sign of good faith.  Wandering husbands stop it and go to counseling.  Porn addicts seek help and come clean – and chunk all their access/toys.  Drunks stop drinking and get help. Some high functioning alcoholics are happy the way they are….and that is the real choice that John has made.  He chooses the relationship he was in first – the one that comes in the form of a beer can.  For John, like many addicts, the cost will have to become so steep that his denial is breached.

Either way, this is where our stories separate ….from here on out, John is no longer Jane’s focus.  

Jane is contemplating how to repair her broken heart, restore her sense of betrayed trust, and to address her own self directed anger for not being honest with herself earlier in their relationship.  At the same time, Jane now realizes that making a choice to end her relationship is a sign of good mental health for her own future.  She chooses to set herself on the path to a healthy outcome, and begins to journal her self discovery.

After the Change, Admitting the Crisis.

A crisis, by definition, is not something that we experience in our lives consistently, every day.  It’s a decision point or change that impacts us greatly, and pulls us from the routine of life.  Our character Jane is at the space we all reach time and again in life.  Her emotions are twisted in the stages of grief we process as we let go of any loss, and she’s second guessing her decision to walk away.  As one reader said…..

“It’s been hard (to let go) because I guess I hold on so tightly to the idea in my head that he’s the one. On many events during our 5 years he’s said to me, and many others that he wants to marry me, that I was the one…. And I feel I’m still holding on to that idea….”

So what do you do first?

If I were sitting across from Jane, I’d first congratulate her on her bravery and move on to skills that help us in a crisis.  It’s really hard to say goodbye to someone you love, that you still harbor some respect for.  Jane chose her own future safety and security first, in a non impulsive way.  She didn’t react in anger, and didn’t explode as she had in the past.  Jane took the first steps to prepare for distressing moments in life when she learned about mindfulness and meditation.  (Click on the links to catch up with the basics of what I learned from meditation guru Deepak Chopra.  He explains the basics first, then guides you through imagery.)

Here is a hard reality:  Jane accepted John’s choices as his own to make, and decided to use her own EMOTIONAL DISTRESS SKILLS.  She began by know that she needed to be……

focused on reality.

That is step one.  Radical Acceptance. What is real in this situation?  Is John’s changing the problem?  No.  What is reality? Jane uses a technique called “WiseMind” to make her decisions about her participation in a relationship with John.  Note that I didn’t say “she used her skills to make John do what she wanted.”  John is not going to be changed by Jane’s therapy.  Jane controls only her own contribution, decisions, and is responsible for her own life.

WISE MIND (Click for Skills Listing)

To have a reality in clear focus, we must reach a balanced place.  In DBT, “WiseMind” is described as three parts of “mind.”  First is the “emotion mind,” which occurs when our thoughts are being controlled by our emotions.  This is where we find drama, anger, insults and the generally bad parts of making decisions.  If the emotions are fear, or anger they may keep our thoughts so volatile that we have trouble being reasonable, or seeing reality clearly.  This emotional mind keeps us returning to unhealthy relationships and situations, because it is seeking to find fulfillment that reduces perceived pain.

The “reasonable mind”  or logical mind presents when we can think logically, and be rational about what is occurring.  We don’t employ black and white thinking, as though one truth were absolute.  For instance, rationally, we know that there is much Jane loves in John.  He’s not the sum total of his addiction.  This is where the “wise mind” is formed, that interception between emotion and reasonable mind. Wise mind is part reason and part emotion and what makes us know we’re in this mind is often a sense of intuition. It can sometimes be described as that “aha” moment.


First, Jane finds a place balanced in both emotional knowledge and rational knowledge.  So what would a wise mind decision look like?

  1. Jane acknowledges her reason for “breaking up” with John.  She is choosing her own best, healthiest future.  She recognizes that John is self harming, and that his influence will negatively impact her life, and that of her child.  Her intuition informs her decision, her emotional mind confirms her pain, and her logic says “work the skills we know.”
  2. Jane separateness herself from any stimuli, like her phone, or items that remind her of she and John.  She chooses to calmly box or crate shared items, and to make some basic changes in her jewelry or situation.  No vast reactions like destroying tokens, etc.  Jane also chooses to divest her home of any alcohol as a declaration of independence.
  3. Jane chooses to become mindful of her body, her emotions and her reactions.  She structures her day to have time to reflect and do mindfulness work. She practices good habits – showers, food, clean air.  She uses self soothing exercises  and set short term goals.
  4. Jane avoids “break up music” and diverts her attention to helping other people.  She writes out affirmations, and sends supportive messages to others in crisis without long tirades. She leads herself through a meditation exercise she found on YouTube that helps her visualize peace.
  5. Jane respects her choices, and those of others…including John. John has proven in his actions and his responses that he has a choice in his life, and he has made his choice.  Even though we perceive it as unhealthy, the decision of how we live is uniquely possessed by each person for themselves.
  6. As she listens to calming tones and meditates, Jane breathes in her choice of peace, and imagines that she is breathing out the frustration and attempts at control she experienced.  She imagines herself in her own versions of freedom and grace, first as a bird or eagle flying, as the eternal wind that touches the grass….whatever works to give a visual image of peace.
  7. She allows herself to accept responsibility for herself alone, and to not force her control on John, or to accept responsibility for his choices.  She lets consciously go of any anger that he’s made his own choices for life.
  8. As she meditates  Jane chooses to redirect her thought of John to helping herself, and to imagining a new life where love and addiction do not coexist.  
  9. Jane does not fixate on John.  She does not debate or argue the decision, but practices radical acceptance of the here and now. She simply allows his image to be consistently replaced with ideas of a whole, healthy future without self recrimination, blame or anger.
  10. She gives herself permission to feel the loss, and not to react to it with self abuse or self sabotage.  Instead, she acknowledges that it is part of her life, part of her development to experience love, emotion, loss, reality.  She honors the good part of her relationship with a desire to continue her best life.
  11. Jane uses her perception of reality to know that John will continue to make this choice because he desires to, and lets go of accepting blame, or blaming herself for ending her relationship with him.
  12. Jane uses her ACCEPT skills to maintain emotional balance for the first seven days of her “new life.”  She engages with thoughts of hope and promise, and does not fixate on John, nor does she talk about him with her friends to the exclusion of all else.  She asks for support from her close network of friends, and explains her basic choice for personal health.
  13. Using a pros and cons scenario  based in curiosity not anger, Jane is left then to evaluate her own choices of future, and what she really wants in life.  She is uncertain what her new goal should be, and elects to simply focus on surviving this emotional distress and learning from it.  She acknowledges the hard questions that brought her to her decision, respects them, and breathes them out. (Some examples:  Is it okay for her child to be influenced by a drunk?  Is it okay that there is a high risk for John’s actions to physically injure himself or someone else because of his addiction?  Is it okay that Jane feels disconnected from John when he’s drinking, and that when he blames their separation for his anxiety and need for alcohol, she feels diminished?)
 Up Next:
Jane is about to sit down and map out what she can do to proactively work through her decision, her life change and how to break her own cycle of “loving addicted men.”  This is the first step in an example that will take a while to totally unravel.  We’re sitting in our imaginary friendship with imaginary Jane, noting that she’s using the skills we’ve discussed here. She isn’t allowing herself to become fixated on the breakup, but instead ACCEPTS (more skills) reality and chooses to use her exercises to make a difference in her stress level.  Some examples of skills developed by Marsha Linehan and team, creators of DBT, include WISE MIND exercises:

(1) Focus on Your Breath

Take a moment to settle yourself into a comfortable meditative position.  Breathe in and out, drawing your conscious attention to your breath as it fills and leaves your lungs.  Allow your attention to shift towards your center, settling yourself into the bottom of each breath.  Now focus your mindful awareness towards the center of your forehead as you settle into the top of each breath.  Notice how you can consciously control your attention as you focus on the top and bottom of each breath.

(2) Drop Into the Pauses

As you engage in mindful breathing, allowing yourself to notice the “pause” after each inhalation and each exhalation.  This pause is much like the still space that exists when leaping between trapeze bars.  Notice the stillness within each pause.  Allow yourself to find awareness in the pauses at the top and bottom of each breath. Settle in to each pause and find stillness within.

(3) Stone Flake on a Lake

To engage in this visualization exercise, imagine that you are seated next to a crystal clear lake on a beautiful sunny day.  Imagine that you are a small flake of stone, chipped from a much larger rock, that someone has gently thrown out into the center of the lake.  You are gently floating there on the placid surface of the still water. Now you begin to gently and slowly float downward in the cool water toward the smooth, sandy bottom of the lake.  Notice the look and feel of the water as you gently float to the bottom.  Notice the feel of the smooth sand as you lightly rest upon it.  Become aware of the peace and serenity at the bottom of the lake.  This deep stillness and serenity is the calm center of yourself.  Allow your attention to settle into this calm centered place within.

(4) Breathe “Wise” In, Breathe “Mind” Out

This exercise is particularly helpful if you feel stuck in emotion mind and are feeling overwhelmed.  In these moments, it may be difficult to focus your attention on a longer visualization exercise.  At times like this, simply notice that you are feeling intense emotions and begin to direct your focus toward your breath.  As you pull the air into your lungs, say the word “wise” in your mind.  As the air leaves your lungs, say the word “mind” to yourself. The idea is to focus your attention entirely on these words as you breathe in and out to begin to settle yourself back into a place of calmness and wisdom.

(5) Is this “Wise Mind?”

Many of us often know that we are doing or saying something that is not in our best interest, but for some reason we do it anyway.  This can happen for a wide variety of reasons, such as directing passive aggression toward the self or choosing self-sabotaging behavior.  If you find yourself experiencing even the slightest sense that you are about to do or are doing something that you will later regret, notice this and pause.  As you pause, take a slow breath in and ask yourself, “Is this (action, thought, etc.) wise mind?”  Listen for the answer… don’t tell yourself the answer.  Allow it to arise naturally within.  Pause, breathe, and notice what answer presents itself to you. Now, it is up to you whether or not to do what wise mind knows is best.

Thanks to the www.mindfulnessmuse.com for outlining the exercises created by Linehan, as they appear above, and to the www.dbtselfhelp.com site for the many handouts we’ll consult via click through.  Both are excellent sites with superb resources  and I encourage you to visit them.

Next Article:  Choosing Healthy Change and Emotional Stability in the Storm

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