The second step in emotion regulation, after identifying what you’re feeling, is figuring out whether your emotion makes any goddamn sense whatsoever.
A lot of our emotions are the product of our thoughts and interpretations about events, not about the events themselves. For instance, imagine that you didn’t get invited to a party. Your emotional reactions are going to be very different if your interpretation is “ugh! That asshole deliberately didn’t invite me! Fuck them!”, “everyone secretly hates me and they are all pretending to be my friend because they’re too polite to tell me”, or “I hate parties and enjoy having some extra time to work on my knitting.”
A lot of people– including, unfortunately, a lot of therapists– take this observation and say “well, if we just get people to change their distorted thoughts, then they’ll stop being unhappy!” This is probably the most common failure mode of cognitive behavioral therapy. There are two issues with this.
First, not all cognitive distortions make people unhappier. You might be really happy if you have the mistaken belief that someone you love is compatible with you when they really, really, really aren’t. You might be really happy if you have the mistaken belief that of course your startup or rock band is going to beat the odds and be successful when other people’s aren’t. Those beliefs are still cognitive distortions! Certainly one might argue that cognitive distortions which make you unhappy are higher priority than ones which make you happy, but the problem is that the latter have this strange tendency to bite you in the ass.
Second, sometimes people are right. There are two reasons why you might believe that you don’t have any friends and people you interact with barely tolerate you. First, it might be that you have cognitive distortions which lead you to believe that people barely tolerate you in spite of the evidence that you are widely liked. Second, it might be that you don’t have any friends and people you interact with barely tolerate you. Attempting to solve the second problem via correcting your distorted thoughts isn’t going to work, because your thoughts aren’t actually distorted.
Checking the facts in DBT is a six-step process:
- Figure out what emotion you want to change.
- Describe the event prompting your emotion as factually as possible. Stick to things that are observable through your senses. Avoid judgments, absolutes, and black-and-white descriptions. It is perfectly normal for this to take three or four tries to get all the emotion-loaded language out and stick to just the facts.
- Describe your interpretations, thoughts, and assumptions. Then brainstorm as many alternate interpretations as you can think of. Try to look at all possible points of view. Test each of those assumptions against the facts you laid out in #2.
- Are you assuming a threat? This isn’t appropriate for all emotions, and if there isn’t one, it’s fine, skip to the next step. If you can think of some sort of threat, label it. How likely is it to really occur? What other possible outcomes are there?
- If the threat happens: what sort of catastrophe would occur? Describe it as neutrally as possible. Create a plan for the worst-case scenario.
- Finally, ask yourself if your emotion, its intensity, and its duration fit the actual facts.
If your emotion fits the facts and is effective, you want to use problem-solving. If your emotion doesn’t fit the effects and isn’t effective, you want to use opposite action.
What’s opposite action? Basically, think about the single thing you want most to do right now. You want to curl in a ball on the bed under a blanket. You want to tell that bastard exactly what you think of him. You want to break down crying and apologize again and again and again. You want to not talk to your professor about the work you haven’t been doing.
Now you need to do the opposite of that.
If you want to curl in a ball on the bed, you need to stand up, put on pants, and go for a run. If you want to tell that bastard exactly what you think of him, you need to smile and buy him some chocolates. If you want to break down crying and repeatedly apologize, you need to say “no, fuck you, I did that and I have nothing to be ashamed of.” If you want to avoid your professor, you need to schedule a meeting with her and be forthright and honest about what you haven’t been doing.
And then you have to keep doing it. You don’t get to say “welp, I went for a run, and it didn’t work, time to hide under the blanket.” You will not get to hide under a blanket at any point.
Yes. I know.
If it helps, you don’t actually have to be happy about opposite action. In fact, it is totally acceptable to spend the entire time you’re doing opposite action going “I hate this I hate this I hate this I hate this I want to find Marsha Linehan and punch her in the face.” You still have to do it.
Opposite action is the hardest thing in the world. It is also freaky magic. It really works. I promise.
Don’t do opposite action if the emotion fits the facts. If that bastard is actually mistreating you, buying him chocolates will backfire badly. If you are angry at him for something that, all things considered, isn’t actually his fault, and is actually kind of your fault, then you do opposite action.
Now, if your emotion fits the facts, you want to do problem-solving. (If there isn’t a problem, one assumes, you wouldn’t try to regulate your emotions.) DBT does not have any magic exciting new tricks for problem-solving that you don’t already know. Set your goal. Brainstorm ways to solve your problem without judging any of the ideas you come up with. Pick out the best one; if you’re having trouble choosing between two options, do pros and cons of each. When you pick one, put it into practice. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
THE VERY LARGE DICTIONARY OF EMOTIONS, PART TWO
Fits The Facts: You or someone you care about is hurt, attacked, threatened, or insulted. You can’t reach a goal. You can’t do something you want to do. Your group is offended, threatened, or insulted.
Opposite Actions: Avoid the person you’re angry at. Take a time out. Be kind to the person you’re angry at. Forgive. Try to imagine things from the other person’s point of view. Assume they had some good reason for what they did. Keep your hands open, your muscles relaxed, your teeth unclenched, your breath slow and deep. Smile.
Problem Solving: Fight back. Overcome obstacles to your goals. Try to prevent future attacks, insults, or threats. Avoid the people who are hurting you.
Fits The Facts: You’re in contact with something poisonous or contaminating. You’re around a person or group whose behavior or thinking could hurt you or your group. Someone you hate is touching you.
Opposite Actions: Move close to, stand near to, or touch what disgusts you. Take it in: touch it, taste it, smell it. Be kind. Try to imagine things from the point of view of the person you feel disgust for; try to think of good reasons for the behavior you find disgusting. Keep your hands open, your muscles relaxed, your teeth unclenched, your breath slow and deep. Smile.
Problem Solving: Clean up revolting things. Influence people to stop doing the behavior you find disgusting. Avoid people or things you find disgusting.
Fits The Facts: Somebody else has something you want or need and don’t have.
Opposite Actions: Don’t try to take away the thing the other person has. List all the things you’re thankful for without exaggerating your misfortunes or discounting what’s good for you. Check whether the other person’s things are really as good as you think they are. Keep your hands open, your muscles relaxed, your teeth unclenched, your breath slow and deep. Smile.
Problem Solving: Improve your life. Try to get others to be fair. Practice sour grapes. Avoid people who have more than you.
Fits The Facts: There’s a threat to your life, health, or well-being, or that of someone you care about.
Opposite Actions: Do the thing you’re afraid of doing over and over again. Approach things you’re afraid of. Try to give yourself a sense of control over your fears. Focus on the thing you’re afraid of; try to adopt an attitude of curiosity and interest towards it. Remind yourself that you’re safe. Keep your head and eyes up, your shoulders back and relaxed, your knees apart, your hands on your hips, your heels a bit out, your breath slow and deep.
Problem Solving: Freeze. Run. Remove the threat. Avoid the threat. Try to control the threat.
Fits The Facts: Someone is trying to take something or someone very important away from you. You’re in danger of losing a very important relationship.
Opposite Actions: Don’t control other people. Share the things and people you have. Don’t snoop. Don’t ask probing questions. Don’t avoid the situation. Listen to all the details; look around and take everything in. Keep your hands open, your muscles relaxed, your teeth unclenched, your breath slow and deep. Smile.
Problem Solving: Protect what you have. Try to be more desirable to the person you want to be in a relationship with. Leave the relationship.
Fits The Facts: The person, animal, or object improves your life or the life of other people you care about, or helps you achieve your goals.
Opposite Actions: Avoid the loved one. Distract yourself from the loved one. Whenever you think about the loved one, think about all the reasons you shouldn’t love them. Don’t talk about how much you love them. Unfollow them on social media. Avoid contact with reminders of the loved one: pictures, letters, belongings, places you went to, places you wanted to go to. Don’t set up circumstances where you’ll ‘accidentally’ run into the loved one.
Problem Solving: Be with the loved one. Touch the loved one. Avoid separations when you can. There are probably not a terribly large number of problems associated with this one?
Fits The Facts: You’ve lost something or someone permanently. Things aren’t the way you hoped.
Opposite Actions: Get active. Don’t avoid things. Do things that make you feel competent. Do things that are fun. Be mindful of the present moment. Notice anything positive that you do. Keep your head up, your eyes open, your shoulders back, your voice upbeat. Exercise.
Problem Solving: Grieve. Have a memorial service. Retrieve what you lost. Tell other people you need help, and accept help that’s offered. Try to figure out how to have a life worth living without what you lost.
Fits The Facts (Shame): You would be rejected by a person or group you care about if some fact about you is made public.
Fits The Facts (Guilt): Your behavior violates your morals.
Opposite Actions (if guilt is justified): Make your behavior public. Apologize. Fix what went wrong. Commit to not doing the wrong thing in the future. Accept the consequences gracefully. Forgive yourself. Let it go.
Opposite Actions (if shame is justified): Hide your behavior. Work to change the person or group’s values. Find a new group that won’t reject you. Repeat the behavior over and over (either with your new group or by yourself). Remind yourself that your behavior is justified, even if your group doesn’t approve.
Opposite Actions (if neither guilt nor shame are justified): Make public your personal characteristics or behavior. Repeat the behavior over and over without hiding it. No apologizing. No making up for what you did wrong. Don’t avoid the situation. Lift up your head, puff up your chest, maintain eye contact, and keep your voice steady and clear.
Problem Solving (if both guilt and shame are justified): Hide what will get you rejected. Appease the people offended. Seek forgiveness. Fix what went wrong. Accept consequences. Change your behavior.