by Jessica Baker, Ph.D.
There is no question that this is one of the most difficult times most of us have faced in our lives. Many of us are experiencing more challenging emotions than we typically do. On top of that, we have fewer resources at our disposal to deal with these challenging emotions. For example, I have found that things that did not bother me pre-pandemic can now easily trigger unpleasant and intense feelings! I am grateful for my clinical psychology training and some of the tools it provided me to deal with these intense and fluctuating emotions. In this blog post, I am sharing one of my favorite tools from dialectic behavior therapy (DBT): opposite action. The basic gist of opposite action is just like it sounds—do the opposite of what the challenging emotion is urging you to do.
Feelings come along with urges to behave in certain ways—telling us to act in a certain way or engage in a certain behavior. Oftentimes these urges can help us respond effectively in a difficult situation. For example, fear (a strong emotion) may come paired with a behavioral urge to step back from the lion’s cage (this is adaptive and helps manage the emotion). If we are anxious, we may have the urge to avoid. If we are sad, we may have the urge to withdraw. However, other times the urge that comes along with the challenging feeling may not be adaptive and might actually contribute to the emotion lasting longer or even getting worse. What happens if you engage in these initial behavioral urges even when it’s not helpful to do so? For example, if you are sad and lonely because you are not able to go home for the holidays, your behavioral urge might be to curl up under the covers all day and cry. The sadness and loneliness may subside temporarily because you’ve escaped the challenging emotion, but it might not help in the long-term, and it might not necessarily help you feel better. Acting on that emotion and burrowing in bed robs you of potential opportunities to open yourself up to other emotions, like taking a walk and enjoying nature, or reaching out to a friend or family member, even if virtually.
What opposite action tells us to do is to act in the opposite of that initial urge so that we can open ourselves up to having a different experience. Opposite action takes an internal push, but it can jump start you out of an emotion trap.
Some examples of acting opposite include:
Sadness – instead of withdrawing…engage!
Anxiety or fear – instead of avoiding (an objectively safe situation)… approach the situation!
Anger – instead of lashing out…be kind and compassionate!
One thing that is really important is that when you engage in the opposite action, throw yourself into it! No half measures. You have to commit. Don’t wait for the challenging feeling to fade before you act opposite. The feeling might not fade; it might intensify, and then you’ll still be under the covers! By acting in the opposite of your behavioral urge, you open the door to feeling differently. It empowers you to change your feelings.
Acting opposite takes practice. So if this is new to you, start with less intense emotions. The first step is to identify the challenging emotion you are having and the behavioral urge associated with it. Ask yourself, does the feeling match the situation? Is the behavioral urge helpful? Do I want to feel differently? Once you’ve identified that you want to feel differently, select the opposite action and make it happen. For example, when I feel dejected about a rejection of a paper or a grant, my behavioral urge is to crawl into bed and give up my academic career. To act opposite, I put my running shoes on (because we don’t wear shoes in the house), grab one of my children, and go outside and play. It is like a reset button that can get me out of a funk and open the door to feeling more positive and helpful emotions. The dejection might not completely go away, but opposite action allowed me in the moment to realize that other emotions were within my grasp.
Once you get the hang of it, you can try it with more intense feelings. Opposite action allows you to recognize that feelings are changeable and that you have the power within you to engage in behaviors that make other emotions possible.