The Skillful Podcast Episode 57- Figuring Out How to Change Painful Emotions

#57: Figuring Out How to Change Painful Emotions

Once you have a grasp of the change-oriented skills in DBT (such as Check the Facts, Opposite Action, and Problem Solving) it can be hard to figure out which one to use. 

This episode walks you through deciding if and when to act on unwanted emotions.

Show Highlights

  • Emotions motivate us to take action
  • The first skill to consider is Check the Facts
  • Sometimes painful or unwanted emotions are based on old stories we tell ourselves, or on habits of thinking
  • What are the actual facts and what are the additional thoughts I am adding to the facts?
  • Check the Facts slows us down and gets us to really think about what is going on
  • If your emotion mostly fits the facts, check with Wise Mind to see if acting on the emotion is effective
  • Effectiveness is determined by what is going to help you reach your goals
  • The skill Mindfulness of Current Emotions can help you experience the emotion without it overwhelming you
  • Sometimes your emotion does fit the facts, but acting on it now isn’t effective
  • If it isn’t effective to express your emotion, consider using Opposite Action
  • If the facts are the problem, use Problem Solving
  • Sometimes short term Opposite Action is useful until you can think of an effective way to express a justified emotion
  • Opposite Action is not about suppressing the emotion, it’s more about acting how you want to feel, or acting in a way that is aligned with your values and goals
  • Remember that you have options when you experience unwanted and uncomfortable emotions

DBT Skills Discussed


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Below is an edited version of the transcript of this podcast episode.

Figuring Out How to Change Unwanted Emotions

Hello and welcome to The Skillful Podcast where we explore DBT and RO-DBT skills to help you reduce emotional suffering, improve your relationships, and become more present in your life.

This episode is about how to figure out how to change unwanted emotions, something we probably could all use some help with.

We will be touching on things that we have talked about in other episodes around Emotion Regulation and Checking the Facts, Opposite Action, Problem Solving, but it’s really about how to notice that you’re having an unwanted emotion, and what to do if you want to change an emotion. The first step is Check the Facts, and then there are a whole bunch of other skills that we’re going to be reviewing today to help us make effective decisions on whether to express our emotion or not. 

The simple way to know you need some emotion regulation skills to notice an emotion that you don’t like or wish was different. 

The Emotion Regulation skills in DBT give us the opportunity to notice that emotion and just see what’s there. And as you mentioned, the first step with any emotion regulation is Checking the Facts because you need to know: what are the facts telling you? What are your interpretations or your judgments or your assumptions telling you? It’s important to sort that out, so that you can think more clearly and be in Wise Mind about the emotion that you feel the urge to change.

Sometimes going through a Check the Facts is kind of enough to change the emotion, and sometimes it isn’t. If you go through Check the Facts and the unwanted emotions haven’t decreased significantly, there’s other things to try. There are other questions to ask yourself to figure out what skills to use.

Let’s do a brief review of Checking the Facts

We use Check the Facts when we have a painful emotion that we want to change. Remember, it’s only useful to work on changing unwanted emotions for emotions that we actually want to change, not emotions that someone else is telling us to change. 

If someone else is telling you that you shouldn’t be so angry, I would not recommend doing a Check the Facts, there might be other skills you can use. But you have to have the motivation to want to change the motion, like if the emotion is making you uncomfortable, for example. If that’s the case, you can Check the Facts and make sure that the emotion is actually based on facts. 

Very often, our unwanted emotions are based on interpretations, or assumptions, or kind of old tapes that we might have about ourselves, or life, or other people, that lead us to take whatever the facts are, and make a certain meaning out of it. That creates some unwanted emotions.

So we are checking the facts for an emotion we want to change, not one that someone else is telling us to change. If people tell me to change my emotion, that, you know, oftentimes, I will take that in and say that it’s justified. In order to get there, you want to be able to name for yourself, what are the facts of the situation that are justifying this emotion? What are the assumptions, old ideas, or habits of thinking that are inflaming this emotion? 

So for instance, if I’m feeling angry, I want to see what are the facts of the situation, and which of those facts actually justify anger,  and what are the additional interpretations or thoughts that I’m adding to the facts that are not factual. 

If someone says something that I feel angry about – What did they say? What’s the context of what they said? What are the facts of that? What else am I thinking? Like, maybe you’re thinking “They never listen to me, they never take me seriously. They’re always criticizing.” Those are not facts. Those are interpretations. 

If you examine it, and realize that they often criticize you, then you want to go back and check. Is this, in fact, one of those times that they’re being critical? Or are you just used to being on alert for the criticism, so you’re assuming criticism, and that’s not actually what they’re conveying? You want to just look at what the facts are, and what other material, that is not factual, that you’re adding, that leads to this particular emotion, whether it’s anger, or sadness, or shame, or envy or whatever it might be.

As you were describing it, I have this image of like, clearing out cobwebs, that we clear away all that other stuff that really clouds our perception to see more clearly. Some of the time we’re like, oh, my emotion really doesn’t fit the facts, this is maybe about old stuff, or some story that I’ve been telling myself, and then the painful emotion goes down.

Emotions urge us to action, that’s why we have them. 

That’s why we want to slow down and recognize: “Okay, I’m having this emotion and I have an action. I’m angry, and I want to yell.” or “I’m angry, and I want to slam the door,” or “I’m angry, and I want to just shut down and give up on everything.” 

Slowing down and checking the facts is kind of bringing in Reasonable Mind to add to the Emotion Mind that we’re experiencing, and just asking “What’s actually happening here?” By slowing down, stepping back, and noticing what the facts are and what else you’re adding to the facts that are not factual, very often, as you said, the emotion will come down. 

When you notice, “I’m primed to be on alert for criticism. And that’s why I’m assuming this thing that they said is meant to be critical when the facts are that I can’t assume that,” and then I feel less on edge. Sometimes I don’t feel less on edge.

This episode is about what to do when you check the facts and that’s not enough to shift the unwanted emotions in a way that you feel like you can keep moving.

What can you do once you’ve asked if the emotion fits the facts and you check the facts and the emotion hasn’t gone down? 

If you determine that the emotion does fit the facts, you have options. The next question to ask yourself is “Is acting on this emotion effective?” You need to check in with your Wise Mind to figure out whether acting on the emotion is effective. 

If your stress level is very high when you’re doing this, it’s going to be very, very difficult to get in touch with your Wise Mind.

In order to figure out whether acting on the emotion is effective, you need to check in with your Wise Mind. And if your distress level is high, that’s going to be very difficult to do. So you might want to think about using some Distress Tolerance skills first, so you can calm your nervous system enough to access that centered place in you that we call Wise Mind. 

What can you do once you’ve checked in with your Wise Mind and asked yourself if acting on this emotion is effective? If the answer is yes, then you have some more options. If your emotion fits the facts, and acting on the emotion is effective, you can feel the emotion, you can act on the emotion or action urge. You can use Mindfulness of Current Emotions to help you through that. 

For example, if your cat dies, and you are feeling sad, we would say that fits the facts. You grieve, maybe you cry, maybe you look at pictures of your kitty, maybe you remember when you first got them, go over some fond memories, maybe you talk to other people about your kitty, and you go through a period of mourning and feeling the grief. And that’s actually effective. 

Because trying to repress that or push it away or say, “I shouldn’t feel that it’s just a cat and what’s the big deal” or whatever you might say to yourself, that that kind of thing backfires, it’s not effective to avoid or suppress emotions that fit the facts that also need to be felt. We have emotions to give us information that we are going to want to act on. And so when our emotions fit the facts, we want to feel those emotions and do what the emotion is urging us to do that is effective. 

To review:

You feel an emotion that you want to change. Ask yourself: does it fit the facts, mostly? My experience is that most unwanted emotions somewhat fit the facts and somewhat don’t, or mostly fit the facts and somewhat don’t, or very little fit the facts, but mostly don’t. So it’s not like an either/or does it fit or does it not kind of question. But does the emotion mostly fit the facts? 

And if the answer is yes, then the next question is, is it effective to act on this right now? If it is, then you act on it, because the emotion is giving you information you want to act on. If something sad happens, you want to grieve, if you’re angry about something, you want to express that anger effectively to get the situation to change.

When our emotion fits the facts and when we decide that acting on the emotion is effective, sometimes the facts are the problem. You want to figure out what’s going to be the thing that’s going to make you feel better: is it actually trying to change the situation if you can, is it trying to solve a potential problem?

If you check the facts, the emotion fits the facts, and it is effective to act on it now, then you want to feel and experience the emotion. 

Problem Solving helps you strategize how you want to act versus acting impulsively. Yes, my emotion fits the facts. Yes, it’s effective to act on it and I’m going to act, but then I’m yelling when that wasn’t actually problem solving. 

Emotion regulation is about slowing it down and having a deliberate process of noticing what you’re feeling and acting on it effectively. 

There are times when our unwanted emotions fit the facts, and it is effective to act on it and then we do so, whether it’s just experiencing the emotion or problem solving around something. There are strategies to address what the emotion is telling us. 

When you act, ask yourself, “Does my emotion fit the facts? Yes? Is it effective to act on it?” Or “Is it effective to act on it now?” Sometimes the answer is going to be no. And in that case, we don’t want to act on it. Even though the emotion fits the facts, it’s not effective to act on it. 

We are talking a lot about anger. 

For me, this is one where, very often, when my anger fits the facts, I still need to slow down because the urge to do something quickly, to be more demanding or pushing can be really strong. I’ve had too many experiences where that backfired on me. My emotion fit the facts. And I said, I’m going to express my anger, and I was not effective in expressing it. And then I ended up with some other difficulties and had to go back and redo some things. Now, I will ask myself, does my emotion fit the facts? Yes. Is it effective to express now? No. 

That’s where Opposite Action comes in. 

We have this option to act opposite of the unwanted emotion. For me when the emotion does fit the facts, but it’s not effective to act now, I need to take more time. I need to think about what would be the effect of action. Opposite Action gives us something short term to change the emotion. The point here is that we’re having an emotion we don’t want, we don’t want to have to just be like, “Okay, my anger fits the facts, but I’m not ready to act on it. So I need to stay angry until I figure out what to do.” That’s going to be really uncomfortable. 

Sometimes, a bit of short term Opposite Action can help.

We’re acting opposite of what the emotion is telling us. My shorthand for this is to act the way you want to feel, instead of acting the way you do feel, and that can change the unwanted emotion. It gets us unstuck from the emotion. And then we can come back, ideally more in Wise Mind to do the problem solving around what to do about this justified emotion.

I think it can be counterintuitive or confusing for folks, when you figure out yes, my emotion fits the facts. And then you might assume, I know I have in the past, that acting on it has to be effective, it has to be the Wise Mind thing to do. There are absolutely times, and anger is a great example, where very often acting on the emotion right then and there, without thinking it through more, is not in our best interest. It is not effective. 

A little quick definition of effectiveness

I think of that as what is going to help you reach your goals, what’s most effective, given the circumstance that you’re in. If your emotion does fit the facts, there are times when acting on it may not be effective. 

In the example of your cat dying, if you have to get to work, you have obligations, you have to pick the kids up from school, you have ways you have to function, and what your emotion is telling you to do is to stay in bed and cry all day. We might say that the emotion and the intensity of it may actually fit the facts, but acting on it in that way, in that moment, is not going to be effective for your overall goals in your life.

That’s where I really try to remind myself that Opposite Action is a short term thing, until we can come back and really act on the emotion effectively. 

So if your cat dies, but you have a big important meeting that you have to go to, and it’s not not going to be effective to go to the meeting and cry the whole time, because you want to advance in your career, and you want to appear competent to your colleagues. Even though that emotion is justified, you might do some Opposite Action of putting a smile on your face and saying, “You know what, I’m not going to think about this now.”

One of our Distress Tolerance skills, Push Away, is about pushing the emotion away temporarily. “I’m going to go to this meeting, and then when I get home later, I’m going to allow myself to grieve.” I’m not suppressing the emotion, I am mindfully and skillfully putting the unwanted emotion to the side temporarily, so that I can stay effective in this moment, and come back and experience the emotion effectively at a time when I have more space to do that.

Doing Opposite Action for anger, is to avoid or gently avoid, or maybe even be a little nice when you don’t really feel like being nice.

There may be a fear that you’re not going to express your anger or that you’re not going to do anything about what happened that made you angry. There’s a time and place to effectively express your unwanted emotions. Acting on the anger in the moment may not work or may not be effective for your overall goals. So we do some Opposite Action to help distract, help us not act on the emotion, and then we come back to and say, “Okay, there’s something upsetting that happens, how can I address it in a wise and effective way?”

I want to use another emotion as an example of this: shame.

For most of us, this is a complicated emotion. The purpose of shame, the reason why most humans have this emotion built-in, is that we need to stay connected to other people. And sometimes our actions are going to push people away. Shame is that reminder to be careful that you’re not alienating people. 

Where we tend to struggle is feeling like we need to be ashamed of everything, and need to be super concerned about alienating other people, or when we’re not as concerned about ourselves. 

Let’s say I do something that I feel shame about, and I Check the Facts, and my shame is justified. I think, “Yeah, that was hurtful, that was harmful, that is going to push people away, I probably need to address this.” Problem solving around that is going to be pretty hard for me, because shame tends to be really powerful. I’m not going to be able to think clearly. 

That’s where doing some Opposite Action can help. To say, “You know what? I’m putting the shame to the side. I’m going to focus on the ways I am connected to people. Maybe not the people involved in the situation I feel ashamed about. So I’ll connect with other people who weren’t in that situation.” or “I will really connect with myself and support myself and put a lot of effort into being very kind and encouraging to myself. And then I’ll come back and look at the shame later.” Instead of saying “Oh, my gosh, I did something terrible. It’s justified by the facts, I really shouldn’t have done that. People are going to be upset with me. I better Problem-Solve this right now.” For me, that’s not going to be pretty. Opposite Action, short term, to say, “I’m putting this to the side, I’m not going to focus on the shame, I will come back to it,” can be much more effective. 

Then I can come back and, for instance, apologize, explain where I was coming from, maybe just do a lot of work for myself to tolerate feeling embarrassed about something that nobody wants to talk about. Put the shame to the side and then come back, or I can strategize and deal with it. So I move through it, and move beyond it, and don’t get stuck in that shame.

Now we should move on to what we do when our unwanted emotions don’t fit the facts.

Going way back to the beginning, where we started, right: “What am I feeling? Let me Check the Facts, does my emotion mostly fit the facts or not?” If you determine that your emotion mostly does not fit the facts, there’s a lot of assumptions, there’s a lot of noise that is not factual, then once again, we want to ask ourselves, “Is acting on this emotion effective? Is it effective right now, when our emotion does not fit the facts, when there’s a lot of influence that is not factual, old memories, or patterns or assumptions that we have?” 

Very often the answer to “Is it effective to act on this?” is going to be no because the emotion doesn’t really fit the facts. That’s where we really want to put a lot of emphasis on number one, don’t act on that emotion. And then number two, Opposite Action. This is where Opposite Action is most helpful.

Let’s say you have an emotion that’s not so factual, and you don’t like it. You want to make it go away. There’s a strong urge, like you’re angry because of something someone said, and you know that it’s your own stuff that’s creating interpretations that’s making you angry, and that the anger isn’t really justified. But you’re feeling angry and you want to push back. You want to yell, you want to tell them that they’re so critical and don’t understand you. That’s where Opposite Action is so important. To say, “I’m noticing this anger, I’m going to act opposite, I’m going to be nice to this person, or at least avoid them, I am going to focus on other things besides the anger, so that I’m not sticking with that anger, use some distress tolerance skills to give myself a break from that emotion.”

When our emotion doesn’t really fit the facts, that emotion is still urging us to action that probably won’t be effective. That’s a situation where heavy duty Opposite Action is going to get us out of that emotion, until we can come back in our Wise Mind and say “What’s going on here? What’s actually actionable here?”

There’s another option, when you figure out your emotion doesn’t fit the facts. If you ask yourself, “Is acting on the emotion effective even if it doesn’t fit the facts?” Sometimes you might feel like it’s a yes. If you come up with that answer, you can feel the emotion, experience it, and perhaps act on it. And with that, accept the consequences, gracefully, whatever they may be, which, of course, is difficult to do. 

As you’re experiencing the unwanted emotions, as much as you can, try to be mindful of the emotion. You’re sort of letting it run its course, and knowing that it doesn’t fit the facts, you’ve decided that acting on it is still effective. The consequences might be a little wonky, it may not turn out exactly the way you want it to. You have some Radical Acceptance around that. 

Lastly, if your emotion does not fit the facts and you decide still acting on it is effective, you might want to reconsider Opposite Action. Give yourself a little time to think on it, just to see if Opposite Action begins to feel like the more Wise Mind choice.

Back to the anger example: You’re angry, and somebody said something, maybe it was mildly critical, but you are making all sorts of interpretations that are saying this was hugely critical and a terrible offense. And also, this has been happening too often and something must be done. You noticed that yes, there’s a lot of assumptions and judgments here, so it’s not quite so factual, but you still feel like maybe you need to say something and you don’t want to let this go. 

Really try to do this effectively, mindfully, and try to take it slow. Be aware that this emotion doesn’t mostly fit the facts, so this might not go well. But you feel like you want to try anyway. 

Everything we’re discussing in this episode is about empowering ourselves. We have strong emotions, even unwanted emotions, and we have options, and we can choose the options. 

Then we move from there versus feeling powerless, which is something that tends to increase a lot of distress. “I have a strong emotion, and I have no options. I’m forced to act on this emotion.” Very often when people come to DBT, that’s what they’re struggling with. They have a strong emotion and they can’t stop themselves from acting on it. Even if it harms them, even if it hurts their relationships and takes them away from their long term goals, they don’t know how to stop themselves. 

DBT is all about having options, and sometimes the option is like this one. 

It might not be effective, but you think it’s worth it, and you want to try it anyway. And then you’ll see what happens. That’s a very different mindset from “I am angry, I must say something.” 

Maybe you determine that acting on anger in the moment is effective, even if the emotion doesn’t fit the facts, because it feels good. Don’t judge yourself and try to accept the consequences gracefully. Maybe that causes some strain in your relationship. And then maybe next time you do it differently, but you have choices. That includes sometimes acting in ways that might seem less effective. 

To give another example where you might act on unwanted emotions that don’t fit the facts

“I feel intense shame about something that I did, and I checked the facts. I know that this shame is really heavy and my old stuff. I’m just a terrible person in general. And everything I do is wrong.” This old stuff is flooding in, right? 

If I hurt a friend, I have the urge to say, “Are we okay? I’m so sorry. What do I need to do to make this better?” because I feel ashamed, even though I know that the shame is heavily influenced by my stuff, and not so much by the situation. 

I’m close to this person, and I feel like it’s worth it for me to say this, because I think they’ll understand. They’ll tell me “This is probably about your old stuff, this isn’t so much about what happened and it’s okay.” Maybe that will help me work through the shame. 

This would be an example where you know that the shame is mostly based on your old stuff. In this situation, you’re going to go with the urge to say, “I’m so sorry, what can I do? Are we okay?” because you know this person will be able to handle it. 

I’ve actually done that, where somebody will say, look, “You’re really getting upset about this. And it wasn’t that big of a deal for me.” Even though expressing my shame was not justified by the facts, it helped me to move through the shame. I just basically did an external checking of the facts, and they told me they’re not that upset. Now I can go back and do the internal work. And it’s a little easier to do that internal work around supporting myself through this, this wave of shame. 

So you have lots of options, when you have an emotion that you want to change.

This is really an opportunity to remind yourself that you have options, you have power. The gift of DBT is that we have options, we have power, we can choose, we’re not at the mercy of our emotions. When we have strong emotions, that usually doesn’t feel good. We still want to make the emotion go away as quickly as possible. Really trying to slow down, check in with your Wise Mind, Check the Facts. 

Think about: 

  • Is this emotion based on facts or not? 
  • Is it effective to act? 
  • What are my options of what I can do, rather than just sitting there with unwanted emotions and waiting to be miserable?

And on that note, we’ll end for today. We’re so grateful for all the people who are listening and appreciating what we’re doing here. It does help us to keep going, because we know that there are people who are getting something out of this. That feels really good to us. And so that’s the positive side of our emotions. 

To learn more, or if you’re in the Bay Area and want to get started with therapy, you can find us online at