How To Change Your Emotions [If you WANT to]

Today in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) class, we covered the Emotion Regulation Skill of "Opposite Action."  In this post, I summarize what I got out of the video we watched by Marsha Linehan. No copyright infringement intended. Just passing along knowledge to better process the material myself and to help others.

How to Change Emotions [if you WANT to]

If you're experiencing an emotion that is not serving you or standing in the way of your goals or effectiveness, Dr. Marsha Linehan prescribes a 3 step system to help:

1. Every emotion has an action, and it's different for every emotion.

2. Change the emotion by changing the action.

3. It doesn't always work.  Changing your action doesn't ALWAYS change your emotion. Opposite Action will work when the emotion is not "justified" by the situation.

Elaboration on "justified":

Justified seems like such a subjective term. Our therapist/group leader said to think about it as "justified in terms of the laws of the Universe." For example, if there is a tiger in the room and you get afraid, that is a biological response designed to help you get out of harm's way.  No amount of opposite action will take away that fear (and with good cause!).  However, if the next day you were sure there was no tiger in that same room but felt too fearful to enter, the opposite action of entering the room would help reduce your fear. You would essentially be training your brain and letting it know that the room is now safe (this is known as "exposure therapy.")

The video went on to explore a couple of emotions in more detail. 


According to Marsha Linehan, "Fear is justified when a situation threatens your life, health, or well-being."  If it does not, it is not justified.


Anger is justified when you have an important goal blocked or when you feel a lot of pain.  Our therapist pointed out that even when anger is justified, it doesn't always serve you or work for your good, so you may want to reduce it anyway.

The natural response to anger is to attack.  The Opposite Actions to anger are:

  • Gently Avoid (leave the situation without causing a scene)
  • Be Decent, and if possible, be a little kind
    • Try to be empathetic - think about what the other person might be thinking/feeling. This is more effective at getting what you want than getting angry and acting in anger.
We have an intern doctor assisting our group leader, and she gave an excellent example of how she used Opposite Action to counteract anger that came up inside of her.  She was working in the E.R., where emotions are heightened and people obviously do not feel well. A confrontational nurse was rude and angry with her, and she decided to respond to the nurse in a very soft, kind voice (genuinely). She felt that this disarmed the nurse emotionally and that she (the doctor) kept her own cool.

Effect of Intense Emotions Being Reduced

Once you reduce intense emotions, you can think more clearly, allowing you to make appropriate, effective decisions.

"Do it [Opposite Action] All The Way"

Dr. Marsha Linehan also emphasizes that if you are going to practice Opposite Action, you must do it "all the way"if you want to experience results. She gives the example of a woman who is afraid to go to parties because she is fearful that people will criticize her and be mean to her. If the woman shows up at the party in order to practice Opposite Action, but she keeps her head down and doesn't make any eye contact with anyone, she is only making a half-effort, which won't be effective. She also needs to be looking up and being willing to engage. In this way, she is giving the full effort of body and mind in the Opposite Action attempt.

I hope this was helpful for you.
Thanks for reading.
More Soon.

"Opposite Action:Changing Emotions You Want To Change (Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Training Video)"  Dr. Marsha Linehan DVD 


  1. Thanks for sharing I am going to try this, I have a lot going on right now and I get so overwhelmed some days. Anger and sadness and shame are my usual emotions lately with anger being most prominent its hard for me to keep them under effectively when I'm under stress but I've never tried this before so I'm going to give it a try.

  2. Thanks for letting me know that you will try to use this tool!



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