DBT Peer Connections

Building Hope, Community and Skillful Means

DBT Skills: Working with Primary & Secondary Emotions


The easiest way to figure out whether you are experiencing a primary or secondary emotion is to ask whether the emotion and its intensity fit the facts of the situation. If your emotion fits the facts it is usually a primary emotion, if it does not fit the facts it is usually a secondary emotion. Use the following flowchart and subsequent tables to help you figure out what emotion regulation skills to use for primary and secondary emotional responses.

  1. What is the emotion I am experiencing?

  1. Is my emotion a primary (fits facts) or a secondary emotion (does not fit the facts)?
  2. What solution will I use to solve the problem?
  3. Was the solution effective after applying it?
  4. What do I think caused the solution to be effective or not?

Check the Facts

Opposite Action


Fear fits the facts when:

  • Your life or that of someone you care about is threatened
  • Your health or that of someone you care about is threatened
  • Your well-being or that of someone you care about is threatened
The Opposite Action for Fear is:

  • Do what you are afraid of doing over and over again
  • APPROACH events, places, tasks, activities, people you are afraid of.

Do things to give yourself a sense of CONTROL and MASTERY over your fears.


Anger fits the facts when:

  • An important goal is blocked
  • You or someone you care about is attacked or hurt
  • You or someone you care about is insulted or threatened
The Opposite Action for Anger is:

  • Gently AVOID person you are angry with (rather than attacking)
  • Take a TIME-OUT and breath in and out deeply and slowly
  • Do something a little bit NICE (rather than mean or insulting

Do the OPPOSITE of other angry action urges


Disgust fits the facts when:

  • Something you are in contact with could contaminate you
  • Somebody whom you deeply dislike is touching you or loved one
  • You are around a person or group whose behavior or thinking could seriously damage or harmfully influence you or the group you are part of
The Opposite Action for Disgust is:

  • MOVE CLOSE. Eat, drink, stand near, or embrace what you found disgusting.

Be KIND to those you feel contempt for; step into the other person’s shoes


Envy fits the facts when:

  • Another person or group gets or has things you don’t have that you want or need
The Opposite Action for Envy is:

  • Inhibit destroying what the other person has
  • Do the OPPOSITE of envious action urges

Make a list of the things you are thankful for


Jealousy fits the facts when:

  • A relationship or thing in your life is very important and desired by you
  • An important relationship or thing in your life is in danger of being damaged or lost
  • Someone is threatening to take a relationship or thing important in your life away from you
The Opposite Action for Jealousy is:

  • LET GO of controlling others’ actions

SHARE what and who you have in your life


Love fits the facts when:

  • Who or what is loved does things or has qualities that you value or admire
  • Loving the person, animal or object enhances the quality of your life or of those you care
  • Loving the person, animal or object increases your chances of attaining your own personal goals
The Opposite Action for Love is:

  • AVOID the person, animal or object you love
  • DISTRACT from thoughts of the person animal or object
  • REMIND yourself of the “cons” of loving

Do the OPPOSITE of other loving action urges


Sadness fits the facts when:

  • You have lost something or someone irretrievably
  • Things are not the way you wanted or expected and hoped them to be.
The Opposite Action for Sadness is:

  • Get ACTIVE; approach, do not avoid.

Do things that make you FEEL COMPETENT and self-confident. 


Shame fits the facts when:

  • You will be rejected by a person or group you care about if characteristics of yourself or your behavior are made public
The Opposite Action for Shame is:

when your behavior does not violate your own moral values

  • Make your personal issues PUBLIC with people who won’t reject you
  • Engage in behavior that sets off shame OVER AND OVER in public
  • Do the OPPOSITE of other shame action urges

When your behavior
violate your own moral values

  • APOLOGIZE publically
  • REPAIR the transgression
  • MAKE THINGS BETTER; or work to prevent or repair similar harm for others
  • COMMIT to avoiding that mistake in the future

ACCEPT the consequences gracefully


Guilt fits the facts when:

  • Your behavior violates your own values or moral code
The Opposite Action for Guilt is:

When you WILL NOT
rejected if found out

  • Make your personal characteristics PUBLIC with people who won’t reject you
  • Engage in behavior that sets off gu1lt OVER AND OVER AND OVER in public

When you WILL
be rejected if found out

  • HIDE or USE SKILLFUL MEANS if you want to stay in the group
  • Join a NEW GROUP that fits your values

Do what makes you feel guilty OVER AND OVER with your new group


Author: Rachel Gill

I am a survivor on mission to synthesize balance from division, to find dialectical healing, learn to love what I am feeling, live in the now, show my peers how.

6 thoughts on “DBT Skills: Working with Primary & Secondary Emotions

  1. Pingback: DBT Skills: Working with Primary & Secondary Emotions | DBT Peer Connections | MAKE BPD STIGMA-FREE!

  2. Does the Opposite action list make it a secondary emotion? I’m not sure I understand that part.


  3. A few questions for Rachel:

    Why do you refer to emotions as “primary” or “secondary” rather than the well established “appropriate” and “not appropriate” (or “justified” or “not justified”)?.

    How do you define the word “fact” in any particular setting where I experience the emotion? In my view, what you refer to as “a fact” is really “consensus of perceptions” of the issue at hand by those not experiencing the emotion at the time. How does the person experiencing the emotion “get the facts” (as you put it) in time to act on the emotion? Clearly through immediate discussion with people who can put a proper perspective on your emotion. Secondly, in your chart you said you were going to recommend to us actions to take when we determine whether the emotion is primary or secondary … as you define it.

    When I look at the “Check the Facts” column in your chart, I do not see any recommended action, just a definition of the emotion. So, for example, for the emotion “fear”, the most appropriate action, if the fear is based on something that should be feared (i.e. what you call a fact and what I would call a “consensus of perceptions” or “a valid/justified fear) would be to escape or defend (the instinctive “fight of flight” reaction.

    About myself: I do not consider myself as having disorder that would be classified as BPD … rather challenges are based on generalize anxiety disorder and adult ADHD (and all the comorbid conditions that are a result of these primary ones). To me, the label “borderline personality disorder” carries a stigma, and a new label or classification should be sought for the many disorders involved. I know that this has already been a topic of debate among the professionals, and wisely, the disorder previously labelled as BPD has been left out of DMS-V (also called DMS-5).

    Finally, thanks for all the good material you are providing us on these emotional and obsessive/compulsive issues. I have found them very helpful.


    • Peter ,

      Excellent questions, I appreciate your thoughtful and articulate posting. To answer your first question about choice of terminology in describing emotions as primary/secondary vs. justified/unjustified, the reason I use primary and secondary to describe emotional responses is that these terms frequently come up in relation to discussing PTSD, exposure therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy, generally. Justified/unjustified emotions relate to terms that are mostly specific to DBT, so, I include both descriptions (primary/secondary & justified/unjustified) to speak to the broadest audience and to (hopefully) define them more clearly to peers who have trouble understanding the concept behind primary/secondary emotions as I did.

      Q: How does the person experiencing the emotion “get the facts” in time to act on the emotion?

      A. I am not sure if I understand this question correctly. What do you mean “in time to act on the emotion?” Do you want to check the facts to stop an emotional response or an emotion itself? I want to give you a relevant response, can you clarify your question for me. Generally, the more intense the emotional distress, the harder it is to check the facts, and it takes a lot of willingness and practice.

      In my learning experience, I started with first identifying the problematic emotion and the emotion’s urge. For me, the problem emotion is anger. The problematic urge I have is to yell, scream, leave the room or hurt myself when anger comes up in interpersonal communications. So, to practice I began by just noticing and acknowledging or validating the urge when it comes up. “I feel angry and have the urge to leave the room.”

      It is hard to check the facts in the moment of intense emotion and so to build skills, I often use a behavior chain analysis to figure out the facts in hindsight so I can be more aware if and/or when the emotion comes up again. By using behavior chain analysis to problem solve when NOT in emotion mind, you gradually build awareness that with practice, so that you will begin to build the ability to check the facts as they occur.

      A few good questions to ask yourself are:

      1. Is my emotion coming more from reality or my interpretations? Usually a problematic emotional response is about 80% a response to past experiences or current thoughts/opinions and 20% relevant to the current situation. For example, when I blow up my boyfriend’s phone with tears and crisis because he is late, I am usually acting 80% out of my fear of abandonment that goes back to my childhood and 20% out of appropriate anger at him being late. It took me a lot of time and practice to arrive at this realization. I am still generating and applying solutions to the problem behavior (blowing up my boyfriend’s phone) though because changing emotionally responsive behavior that comes naturally is difficult, much more difficult than will power can solve.
      2. Does the emotional intensity fit the intensity of the situation? For example, yelling and screaming at my boyfriend for being late is too intense an emotional response for the situation. (Remember to use your own internal gauge for measuring your emotions over anybody else’s.)

      3. If the emotion is too intense, I then ask myself, is there another more appropriate (primary) emotion I am feeling that I may be blocking or avoiding? In my case, when it comes to anger, I tend to block sadness.

      Thank you for your question and for sharing your experience. It is so difficult to do and so helpful to our peers with emotion regulation problems. I think most people find it difficult to comprehend the level of learning, concentration, effort, and reinforcement it takes for people with emotion dysregulation to cope effectively with distress. When people tell me to, “just get over it,” when I am experiencing intensely distressing emotions it is like telling a hungry person to “Just make some bread.” Being hungry does not teach one how to acquire food any more than being emotionally distressed teaches one how to, “get over it.”


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