Our emotions often naturally pair with certain behaviors. For example, when we are angry, the primal reaction may be to verbally or physically attack someone (here's where the concept civilized society kicks in). Similarly, when we are sad or depressed we often feel like isolating ourselves. When we feel fear or anxiety we want to avoid the anxiety provoking situation. And if we feel shame and guilt we may want to hide from the world. All of these actions feel right at the moment because of how we are programmed, but often times they are not the most useful path we could take in the particular situation. When we add an overwhelming emotional intensity, it is really useful to find an alternative coping strategy.

In this Emotion Regulation exercise we'll work on practicing to act the opposite of your emotional urges. In DBT this is a valuable skill that teaches you to engage in more effective behaviors.

DBT Emotion Regulation: Balancing Emotional Urges
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Step One:What are the Opposites?

First, we have to get familiar with what the opposites of the usual emotional urges are. We will work on four emotions, since they have the most potential to lead to ineffective behaviors: anger, sadness, anxiety and shame. We won't focus on the positive emotions, because they usually lead to positive behaviors such as approaching others, being effective and motivated.

Emotion Urge Opposite Urge
Anger To verbally or physically attack someone Being polite, more gentle or nice
Anxiety/fear To avoid the anxiety-provoking situation To remain in the anxiety-provoking situation
Sadness To isolate yourself from others To seek support and socialize
Shame To hide from people or to avoid them To approach others and share your thoughts (if appropriate)

Step Two: Emotion and Effectiveness of the Emotional Urge

Now that you know what the opposites of the usual emotional urges are, there are two things that follow. First, when you find yourself in a situation where you experience overwhelming emotions, try to identify what it is that you are feeling. Next, think about whether expressing your natural emotional urge is useful and effective in the situation or not. For example, if you are depressed and you really just want to stay in bed the whole week and not see anybody, that would probably not be the effective solution. If you are very angry with your son's behavior, it probably wouldn't be a good solution to bluntly act on your anger and verbally attack him.

If after some consideration you've decided that your primary emotional urge is not the most effective path to take, then move on to the next step.

Step Three: Act Opposite

The idea behind acting the opposite of your emotional urge is to engage in this alternative behavior until your emotion eventually changes its quality or gets diminished. Although at the beginning this may not sound as the most natural thing to do, remember that the only reason why we feel like hiding ourselves when we are ashamed or avoiding the situation when we are anxious is because it feels right. But that is not a good enough reason to simply go with the behavior - what our feelings tell us is not always right, they are temporary and programmed mechanisms.

Check the table from the first step again, and try to engage in the opposite respective behavior. See what happens, experiment. Maybe you will really find that this is a strategy that works great for you!

Step Four: Repeat

It may take a little while to start feeling the effects of the new behavior, i.e. for the original emotion to change. This is why you should try and be persistent with doing the opposite action. Give this new strategy a little time.

Looking at this from the perspective of the wise mind, if this new opposite action is suitable and justified, it should feel right and intuitively appropriate.

Use the worksheet provided to write down how this exercise went for you.


1. Situation: I should give a presentation at work, one for which I was preparing for two weeks.

2. Emotion and effectiveness of emotional urge: I feel very ashamed (emotion) and I find it really difficult to stand up in front of everybody and present my hard work. I am thinking about calling in sick and canceling the presentation (emotional urge). I've been working really hard for this and objectively it's probably not justified or useful for me to do this (effectiveness of emotional urge).

3. Acting the opposite way: I should probably go with the feelings of shame and performance anxiety and do the presentation even though I know it will feel uncomfortable. I should share my work because I worked hard.

4. Repeating: I felt really uncomfortable presenting my work and answering my colleagues' questions but at the end after I finished I felt relieved and I had a sense of accomplishment. It was not easy, but I am glad I did it.

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Q: I've been avoiding getting out of my comfort zone for a long time, so how should I feel less scared about trying the opposite of what I'm used to?

A: When we feel uncomfortable during the process of getting out of our comfort zone it can be easy to overlook the success we are having by simply doing what doesn't feel easy to us. Start small, and no matter the result, be aware that it is a great step forward to try a different and brave move. Be mindful that you should strive for soothing your overwhelming emotion and engaging in activity that feels right from the perspective of the wise mind.

Q: The situation that I'm working on gets me really irritated but not fully angry. Should I try to apply the same opposite action like when I'm angry?

A: The automatic emotional urge when we feel irritated can be to be passive aggressive towards the people around us, or to be cranky when we do things. Identify what your emotional urge is and think about what the opposite of that would be. Then think about trying out that activity. If you are constantly irritated and you are holding back some more anger that you don't feel like you can fully express then try to be mindful of this emotion and of how you feel. Identify the causes of you feeling this way and if there is an underlying problem, try to solve it.

Q: What if I feel an emotion that is not among the four presented, but I can't quite identify what it is that I feel?

A: In this case you can benefit from the Mindfulness Exercise we did back in module 1 - Describe your emotion. Get familiar with the different types of emotions you can experience and practice your mindfulness muscle. Since people with overwhelming emotions can often experience a primary emotion and numerous secondary emotions very fast after that, try to be mindful and identify what else you are feeling. Then observe what your emotional urge is and consider whether it is an effective one. Think of what the opposite of that would be and do this activity until your emotion changes.

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If you have any behavioral health questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare or mental health care provider. This article is supported by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from behavioral health societies and governmental agencies. However, it is not a substitute for professional behavioral health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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Comments About Balancing Emotional Urges

  1. I’m dealing with a bully at work. My emotion is feeling hurt, so I’m afraid to go to work. I cry when I show up and they bully me. What should be my process to deal with these emotions?

    1. Hi Lindsey,

      That sounds like an awful situation you have to deal with. I think you have two basic options.

      (i) Change the Situation: Figure out what you can do to deal with the bully. That might involve removing yourself from the situation, raising the issue with your employer, talking to the bully, etc.

      (ii) Changing your Reaction: Figure out how you can not be as upset by the bullying. That might involve understanding why the bullying is upsetting you, desensitising yourself, soothing techniques, etc.

      Wishing you the best as you navigate this difficult situation.

  2. It is not okay for someone to bully you, at work or anywhere. I hope you reported, or if you feared retaliation, found a new workplace. Emotional regulation is wonderful, but victim-blaming is not: feeling hurt when harmed is NOT YOUR FAULT: the bully needs to change, not you accommodating them.

  3. Why is this excersize not an exame of emotional supression where we know that this will result in the emotion arrising in different ways that are unhealthy at a later stage. Or for example if passive aggressive is called for, for instance if a friend ignores my texts so why shouldn’t I ignore him.

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