Explore skills: Separating Emotion from Action

When I was going through DBT as a client, sometimes a skill would blow my mind. This idea that an Action Urge is something separate and distinct from the Emotion itself was like a revolution for me. Attacking was Anger. Hiding was Fear. Crying was Sadness. They were so inextricably linked in my mind, it seemed that action was a necessary and inevitable outcome of feelings.

And yet…

You can uncouple them.

Emotions have many functions. They provide us with information. They communicate to others. And they motivate us to action. This motivation piece is so important.

If we are going to work on managing our overwhelming emotions, first we have to understand a bit about them.

Remember, we aren’t trying to teach you to NEVER take action. We are just trying to give you the space between your Emotion and the Action Urge to make sure you are being skillful. So that the action won’t have negative consequences. In other words, so that your overwhelming emotions don’t wreck your life. Cuz the reality is, its not the emotion ruining things, its your behavior.

I love this about DBT. This skill is the essence of how mindfulness of emotions can change your life. DBT Mindfulness skills show you how to build your muscles of awareness to give you that brief but monumental pause between stimulus and response. Giving you the power to make a decision about how you want to proceed when something happens that upsets you.

So let’s start.

First, let’s think about what your action urges are. When you feel a particular emotion, for you specifically, what do you feel like doing?

This list pairs common action urges with their prompting emotions. These are just examples to help you consider your own impulses.

I invite you to write out a list of emotions that you struggle with. Then list all of the action urges that get you into trouble. Be specific. You can draw from your experiences over the past year. Maybe when you are hurt, you stop responding to communication? Maybe when you are sad, you use unskillful means to get support and attention? Or when you feel anxious, you beat yourself up mentally and avoid? Or perhaps even when you feel so much love or joy, you throw everything else away in pursuit of affection? These are just examples, not accusations. We all struggle with action urges to some degree. And emotionally sensitive people face even bigger challenges than the general population.

So…What do you do with this list? (Perhaps you wrote it down, maybe you are just reflecting…) Keep it with you. So that each time you feel an emotion, you simply notice and identify the action urge. There by separating it from the emotion. As two distinct experiences. Mentally uncoupling them.

Let’s rehearse. Imaginal Rehearsal. Imagine yourself in those situations from the past year. Imagine feeling the emotion. Once you have mindfully summoned the event from this year, and you can feel the emotions from that event, imagine stepping outside of yourself, as though you were watching a scene of the movie. And from your deep wisdom, watching that scene, ask yourself, what was my action urge? What did I feel like doing? What did I do? What was the outcome? Was it skillful?

And now reflect, when I watch that scene, what do I feel like doing, knowing what I know now?

We can take this further with another Emotion Regulation skill called Opposite Action. But lets just start here with Mindfulness of the Emotion and the Action Urge. This is our first step. And you need to practice.

As you go through your day, set reminders in your phone to tune in to: What emotion am I feeling? What is the action urge?

Its that simple. No need to do anything else….yet.

Using Mindful awareness, you can start to recognize the emotion, and then watch for the action urge. Remembering always that they are separate. Connected, but separate. The emotion will happen in response to an event or some other stimuli. You can’t control that. But if you can become the observer of your experience, you will more and more be able to observe the action urge and make a skillful decision about it.

Of course there are so many more skills that grow out of this foundational awareness.

A woman who struggled with anger told me, “My mother taught me to throw plates when I was angry. As a little girl, we would go to the goodwill and buy old ceramic plates by the dozen. Whenever she was angry, mom would throw plates at the wall behind the garage. It was loud. It was scary. My mother could really rage at that wall. When I got angry, she would egg me on, “Smash them!” I couldn’t control myself very well though. I would throw and break things when we weren’t behind the garage. I remember her spanking me when I threw a water glass across the kitchen. I was about 8. Her rules about when and where to express anger were very specific. I still get so angry that I just have to destroy something. I don’t know how to stop. I have thrown things at my husband. It scares me how little control I have.”

Her mom had trained her that throwing/smashing things was the only way to experience anger. She was locked into a course of action each time she experienced anger. It astounded her to realize that these are actually two separate things. Anger is one experience. Throwing things is another. Anger can make her want to throw things. But it is not the inevitable outcome of being upset. So she practiced.

Marsha Linehan says that people don’t need to rehearse bad behavior. The idea that you need to expel anger by smashing or hitting things, just reinforces unskillful behavior. The more we rehearse a behavior, the more it becomes an automatic response. I realize there are therapies that utilize special tools or pillows to help clients hit out their anger and ventilate it. And to be dialectical about it, I know this has been a powerful release for some people. But Marsha’s focus is on rehearsing skillful behavior.

Feeling overwhelmed by anger, use the RAIN meditation to process it. Exercise. Take a Time Out. Use self-soothing strategies. Recognize that you can replace your instinctive, conditioned response with more skillful action urges.

But also remember, that sometimes your action urge to attack or hide actually is skillful, depending on the situation you are in. There is a reason that we have these action urges. The key is to be mindful.

Posted by

Diana is a licensed professional counselor based in Nashville. She has been teaching DBT skills for the last ten years after writing her master's thesis about making DBT skills training interesting and engaging. She loves using story telling to help illustrate how skills can be used.

4 thoughts on “Explore skills: Separating Emotion from Action

    1. No. I dont believe so. Just sign up to follow the blog. And you should get email updates whenever i post. My plan is to post weekly. You can also follow we on instagram where i have been posting several times a week about dbt skills. Thank you so much for visiting my website. And your interest in staying updated. Let me know if you have more questions.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is such an important skill. It’s all about the crucial pause between the feeling and the response. Love the example of smashing the plates. The poor kid that didn’t understand exactly when and where to smash the dishes!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s