Many of us are familiar with the slight mood swings that hormones, stress, or illness can cause. We are all capable of over-reacting occasionally and under certain circumstances.
But for some people, significant mood swings are a part of their daily lives and it affects their self-esteem, relationships, and quality of life.
Many people with strong mood swings are diagnosed with bi-polar or borderline personality disorder. These diagnoses merely label a list of behaviours and don’t explain how someone got the behaviours in the first place.
In DBT, Marsha Linehan stresses the combination of genetics, environment, and learned behaviour to explain severe mood swings (otherwise known as emotion dysregulation).
1. Genetic Vulnerability
Research shows that some people are born with a high degree of sensory-processing sensitivity. Right from birth some infants respond more intensely than other infants to both positive and negative experiences. Newborns differ in their responsiveness, reactivity, flexibility, and sensitivity to the environment. These differences form the core of our personality and stay consistent throughout our lives.
In her book “The Highly Sensitive Person,” Elaine Aron indicates that 15 – 20% of the population are highly sensitive. If your sensitivity is nurtured in childhood, you grow up with a higher than average ability to understand your own and other’s emotions. You develop high emotional intelligence and have rich, rewarding relationships.
Unfortunately, many sensitive children are not raised in environments sensitive to their high need for validation and support. Instead, they are consistently told their emotional responses are wrong and excessive.
2. Invalidating Environment
When a highly sensitive child has an invalidating environment, it’s difficult for the child to learn to understand or trust his or her own emotional experience.
The invalidation isn’t necessarily because parents, siblings, teachers, or peers intentionally invalidate the child; it’s that they lack understanding and patience for the child’s high emotional needs.
Sometimes parents themselves are highly sensitive and want the child to “toughen up.” Sometimes a highly sensitive parent is overwhelmed by the child’s emotions and so brushes the child’s emotions aside. Sometimes, parents simply don’t understand the child’s strong reactions and so they respond with punishment.
In situations where the child is sexually, physically, or emotionally abused or bullied, the invalidation is severe and crippling.
Whether intentional or not, persistent invalidation is a constant assault on the child’s self perception and often results in emotional dysregulation.
3. Emotion Vulnerability and Self-Invalidation
A chronically invalidated person develops a high level of sensitivity and vulnerability to emotional pain. Marsha Linehan compares the emotionally vulnerable person to a burn victim; even the slightest touch is excruciating.
Any disapproval or rejection, real or imagined, causes unmanageable pain. It’s as if the person has no skin to buffer themselves against the harshness of the world.
If you have a history of being invalidated, you learn to invalidate yourself. You blame yourself for your strong emotional reactions and believe there is something truly wrong with you. You develop unrealistically high expectations of yourself and then beat-yourself up emotionally when you fail to meet your expectations.
Not trusting yourself, you rely on what others say and think about you for your primary source of information about yourself. You learn to expect rejection and disapproval so when it happens, you blame yourself and don’t always hold others accountable when they treat you badly.
4. Active Passivity and Apparent Competence
Linehan found that many emotionally dysregulated persons appear competent and capable in some situations, and passive and helpless in others. Their apparent competency lead others to think the person is more capable than they actually are.
This tendency to appear fine when distressed occurs when someone commits suicide and no-one close to them saw it coming. Neighbours and co-workers often describe mass murderers as pleasant and helpful even days or hours before their killing rampage. A parent may discover their child has been self-harming for a year or more without having suspected anything was wrong.
If you repeatedly receive the message that your responses and emotions are wrong, you learn to mask them, relying instead on non-verbal cues to signal your distress. When other’s don’t pick up on your distress signals, you resort to extreme measures; you may lash out verbally or physically, harm yourself, or may even attempt suicide.
Rather than actively solving your problems, you respond by becoming actively passive. You signal your despair and helplessness to others, then wait for someone to see your distress and rescue you.
Because you swing between appearing competent and acting helpless, others often see your cries for help as manipulative or attention seeking. They don’t take your pain seriously and this increases your despair and self-loathing.
5. Unrelenting Crisis and Inhibited Grief
Unrelenting crisis refers to the perpetual cycle of creating crisis through inactivity and impulsive behaviour, then being overwhelmed and unable to cope with the crisis.
You may cheat on your partner, then become overwhelmed by how much pain you’ve caused them. You may yell at a friend, then be devastated by the loss of the friendship. You may willfully disregard your boss’s warnings, then be desperate when you get fired. You may often come up short on the rent, then panic when you get evicted.
In the midst of constant crisis, you try to inhibit your grief by avoiding emotional pain. You may use alcohol, drugs, relationships, or food to numb your emotions. You may avoid grieving the loss of one relationship by throwing yourself into a new one. Avoiding pain by ignoring problems creates even greater crisis and you become increasingly overwhelmed.
People in your life lose patience with you as they watch you create your own crisis, then look to others to bail you out. You lose patience with yourself, frustrated that you can’t stop the craziness and the overwhelming desperation.
Time to End the Suffering
A persistent habit of muting your emotions on the outside while raging on the inside, results in living a life incongruent with who you really are.
Learning to tune into your emotions, validate your experiences, and listen to your inner voice is challenging; especially if you have never learned to trust yourself. Even finding your inner voice can be a struggle.
I wish there was an easy treatment for someone who, as a result of high sensitivity and environmental invalidation, has developed emotion dysregulation. Unfortunately here isn’t. Treatment is hard work and takes time; but it’s necessary if you are to have a life worth living.
Learning to tune in and trust your inner wisdom requires that you learn skills in mindfulness, emotional regulation, interpersonal skills, and distress tolerance. It requires that you keep your emotions under control so you can practice the skills regularly and in all situations.
If you have debilitating mood swings, a good place to start is with your doctor. It’s important to rule out any medical issues that might be causing them. Getting a diagnosis from a psychiatrist or psychologist isn’t essential, but some people find it validating.
Making serious changes in yourself requires patience and support. You deserve to find someone trained in treating emotion dysregulation and who believes it’s possible for you to change.
“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” ~ May Sarton
To learn more about emotion regulation, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,
Author: Jenny DeReis
Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.
Jenny has intensive and advanced training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.