Describing Emotions and Observing Yourself Without Judgement - DBT Skills

Recognizing your emotions is one of the first ways you can begin to regulate your emotions. Once you've identified your emotions we are going to look at how to observe yourself without judgement. At the end this post will have gone over two key skills of emotion regulation.

Before we can act wisely on our emotions, we need to know what they are and where they stem from. We can slow down our response to a situation by saying out loud to ourselves or writing down the emotion(s) we feel. This helps us make wiser decisions about how we are going to react. Or prevents us from reacting at all as we sometimes know silence is key.

So many of us experience worst feelings reacting to a situation than the situation itself. Sometimes we do or say things we later regret and this eats us up more than that betrayal or slight. And we all know nothing hits harder than self disappointed. This is why observing and describing your emotions comes first on the ER (emotion regulation) skills list. Hey, it's ER like emergency room. I kind of dig!

What are emotions in the first place?

We all have primary emotions and then we have secondary emotions. Primary emotions are our immediate feelings towards an event. Secondary emotions are our feelings towards our feelings or the events following after acting on our initial feelings. For example, you might get upset at someone for ripping your favorite jacket. Your Primary Emotion is anger and so you might scream at the person. Then you may feel guilty for getting so angry.

Guilt is your secondary emotion.

Sometimes we can’t help our primary emotion but we can learn to not let it spiral into all sorts of secondary emotions that prolong our suffering. With just a little time and testing it out for yourself you will see that Observing and Describing Emotions will help you overcome barriers to healthy emotions so you can later change unhealthy ones. Check out how you can effectively go about Observing and Describing the Emotions as a DBT skill below.


Recognize your emotions. This is to slow down the emotional process so you can make wise decisions on how to react. Validating yourself and your emotions are also important. You may do this by answering out loud or writing down:

1. What is the emotion you are feeling? (Ex: anger, hurt, frustrated, irritated, confused, bewildered, triggered, outraged, furious, sad, depressed, low, faded, misunderstood, invalidated, unloved, provoked, violated, misled, paranoid, isolated, alone, used, abused, revengeful, impatient, worried, untouched, undesirable, incapable, inconsolable, hopeless, stupid, unintelligent, unsophisticated, scared, terrified, horrified, anxious, unfulfilled, needy, emotionally-drained, dull, crestfallen, jealous, envious, mean, bitter, cold, apathetic, aloof, numb.)

2. What happened to cause emotion? (Describe the situation leading up to the emotion. Were there any factors involving substances, physical pain, prior stress or or exhaustion. Take all things into account.) Ex: Brittany feels upset at her friends while inside a restaurant because of the way they exclude her from conversations. But she had also been drinking and she had a fight with one of them weeks ago that triggered insecurity.)

3. Why do you think the situation happened? (This is important. For instance, if someone hurt you on purpose you might react differently than if they hurt you by accident. Ex: Brittany’s friends were merely caught up in a conversation that involved their children. Brittany doesn’t have children.)

4. How does the situation make you feel both emotionally and physically? (Describe any tension felt in the body. Try to identify both primary and secondary emotions.)

5. What do you want to do as a result of the emotion?

6. What do you think is wise to do?

7. How will your actions affect you later? (Take into account the bigger picture and your immediate reactions and feelings towards any negative actions you may do. Such as regret, self-scorn, more hurt and sadness.)

Tip: This may feel silly but practice saying your emotions out loud. It’s healthy to validate what you are feeling. Describing your emotions can help deflate your distressing feelings. The more you talk about the emotion, the less you might feel to act on it as it is acknowledging it already, just to yourself. Even if you are angry you can say your emotion quietly to yourself.


Investigate the possible chain of cause and effect. Consider the reasons behind your emotions bigger than the event. This can help you recognize faults in yourself such as thinking traps. Someone with a history of being bullied or abused may jump to conclusions for instance. Another example is someone who has a strong aggressive reaction to her friend not showing up on time to lunch because in the past she felt unworthy/like she didn’t have supportive people in her life. So is this emotion because of the event itself or is it a conditioned reaction to something triggering?

The root primary emotion here is: rejection/abandonment (from the past.) The current primary emotion maybe anger at her friend. But it is helpful to look at the roots of the emotions if you feel there is any. This step is also about being able to keep the bigger picture in sight so you won’t act destructively. Ex: The person leaves the lunch and unfriends her on Facebook.

Another example covers how primary emotions can cause a spiral of problematic behaviors and secondary emotions that prolong suffering.

*Please note, this is hypothetical*

Trisha Paytas felt sad that her friends would talk about her weight (primary emotion) so out of anger (secondary emotion), she made a video exposing David Dobrik and Jason Nash (behavior) because they made remarks about her weight. Then she felt guilty (secondary emotion.) and removed the video. The damage had been done however and her friends began to avoid her, and no longer wanted to make vlogs that included her. She then felt sad once again (secondary emotion).


Lastly, we incorporate a second skill of "observing yourself without judgement." Be gentle with yourself like a caring friend. It's not wrong to admit that some of your behaviors need to be changed, but recognize that your behaviors probably exist because you were never taught how to deal with your overwhelming and distressing emotions any other way.

Consider their addictive qualities if any. Ex: Trisha has had a long history of talking about others “expose video” style in her past. Believe it or not, though behaviors can be self-destructive, we only repeat them if we are getting some kind of reward. Therefore, they can be just as addictive as substances.

Hypothetically, a short term reward for Trisha could be “feeling powerful” or “feeling as if she’s taking back control.” Maybe in the past, people have even stopped their actions that hurt her so for a brief while it ended some suffering.

Other addictive behaviors are binge eating, manipulation, self-harm, chain-smoking, risky sexual activity, etc.

It is important to note the link between addictive emotions and addictive behaviors. And keep in mind that emotions may also be addicting. For instance, sometimes, to protect us from painful sadness, we may choose to get furiously angry. This can make us act out of character, take us from Wise Mind to Emotion Mind and cause more sadness in the long run.

A lot of us like Trisha Paytas (hypothetical) may be conditioned to revert to anger after feeling sad and disappointed by someone. This anger (the addictive emotion) is to protect herself but it can also come with a programmed behavior (vengeance-seeking).

How about you? What emotions and behaviors are you addicted to?


The problem is that though addictive emotions and behaviors may give short term rewards, they will only lead you to later distress which will cause you a whirlwind of secondary emotions, such as shame, disgust, defeat, hopelessness etc. Long term damages are usually far worse than the initial event that set you in a bad mood. Remember trust is a hard thing to regain after it's been broken.

It is good to realize that rage, revenge, manipulation, and self-harm sometimes affect us because it affects others. It can leave us isolated in the long run. To practice this awareness skill, you can fill in the blanks to the questions below and before you react to something.


Fill in the blanks.

The addictive behaviors I engage in are:

The temporary rewards for my behaviors are:

The long-term costs and dangers of my behaviors are: