Your wife asks you to help with a household task. She’s been asking quite a bit lately. You’re annoyed. What you notice next is that your emotional reaction is getting big — to the point of rage even — as if something major has just happened.
You have the urges to yell…to complain…to leave the house without saying anything.
But there’s a part of you accessing a pearl of wisdom that allows you to acknowledge that this emotional reaction would be out of proportion to feeling annoyed with a request.
In what feels like a split second, you can choose to act on that urge, which can lead to damage to your relationship and to personal shame, regret, and a need to repair the damage. Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills offer other options.
In this particular case, upon realizing the emotion of rage doesn’t fit the facts, here are some options that we all have:
1.) STOP: Stop in Your Tracks, Take a Step Back, Observe, and then Proceed Mindfully. This skill helps us not make matters worse and gives our nervous system time to calm down before we make our next move verbally or otherwise.
2.) Opposite Action: This is a skill that we use to create another emotion. We can acknowledge that rage doesn’t fit the facts (although we validate ourselves that there is a cause and that we can explore that more later, such as neglecting self-care and being triggered by something from your past trauma), but at that moment, you have the awareness that the rage toward your wife is not justified.
So, we take actions OPPOSITE of those angry/range urges. What was one of them again, and what would be the opposite action?
Opposite Action: Speak softly (but audibly).
In order for this opposite action to work, we have to do it *all the way*. That means not passive-aggressively talking so softly that the other person can’t hear, potentially causing them frustration.
It also means watching our tone of voice, facial expression, and body language to be sure they are congruent with a message of kindness rather than rage, upset, annoyance, etc.
By bringing so much intention to our words and actions, we begin to *create* another emotion — a sense of calm.
You might be wondering, “But, doesn’t doing the opposite of my urge make me fake or inauthentic? Why should I have to dumb down or dilute my emotions in this scenario?”
It can definitely feel inauthentic. Majorly.
Why? By practicing this DBT skill, you are using a lot of energy to move upstream to literally change your experience on emotional and biochemical levels — you are choosing to change your emotional experience to help you choose behaviors you won’t regret.
The truth is, you don’t have to do all of this; however if your goals are to heal or strengthen an existing relationship (or at least not burn a bridge), and you have an awareness that your emotional reaction is disproportionate to the situation and doesn’t fit the facts…
as in the example of feeling annoyed that your wife asked you to help with a task and then feeling rage at a level that you want to yell, complain, leave, or something else (like throwing an object or saying hurtful things), the choice to acknowledge your emotional reaction is feeling very big compared to the situation at the moment and responding in a way that doesn’t cause harm to yourself, the other person, or your relationship is actually Wise!
It’s a sign of emotional intelligence, maturity, willingness, and self-control.
So, the next time you find yourself practicing a DBT skill and feeling fake or inauthentic, the invitation is to compassionately invite yourself to have compassion for your experience — you’re choosing to do hard work. You are not fake or inauthentic. You are changing and this takes effort, feeling uncomfortable, and growing pains.
If you want to learn dialectical behavior therapy skills to help cope with intense emotions in relationships, my next entirely online DBT class, Interpersonal Effectiveness, starts later this month. You can sign up for registration reminders here.
You are not alone in these struggles, and simply having a supportive, non-judgmental community in which to work on these skills can make all of the difference. I hope you’ll join us.
(Founder of HealingFromBPD and EmotionallySensitive.com)