Opposite Action

Today's skill of the month comes courtesy, once again, of Dr. Marsha Linehan and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It is part of the Emotion Regulation module and it is one of my favorite skills to share with clients.

We know from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that our thoughts affect our feelings (when we think negatively, we feel worse and when we think more positive or realistic thoughts, we feel better). Similarly, the concept of opposite action suggests that when we DO the opposite of the way we feel, we can change our mood, too!

To begin, you first must identify your current feeling. If you're feeling sad, for example, just validate that. Next, think about whether this feeling is "appropriate" given the circumstances. If you lost a friend to a car accident, of course feeling sad is appropriate. In that case, you wouldn't want to try to actively change your feeling. If, however, you're feeling sad because you didn't get to go to Disneyland as planned, the feeling may be inappropriate given the circumstances. It is not a "permanent" problem--unless Disneyland closes forever which is highly unlikely. So if you find yourself feeling sad (or frustrated or fearful or any other negative feeing) and want to change that-- this is the skill for you.

After identifying your feeling (or feelings), the next thing to do is ask yourself "what does feeling this make me want to do?" So if you're feeling sad, you might want to isolate, hide under the covers and wait for everyone to go away and leave you alone. If you feel frustrated, perhaps you want to give up. If you feel anxious or fearful, chances are you want to freeze (do nothing) or run away (flee). If you feel angry, you may feel like yelling, hitting or arguing.

The next step is to ask "what is the opposite of doing that thing I feel like I want to do right now?" What is the opposite of yelling? Maybe whispering. What is the opposite of isolating? Getting out in public or with friends--engaging! The opposite of freezing or fleeing in fear? Moving toward a feared object or situation.

Finally, when you fully engage (even though, I'm not gonna lie, it may be really hard!) with the opposite action, the chances are very good that you will feel the opposite to the way you originally felt. So if you were feeling sad, and you wanted to isolate but instead you got up, showered, got dressed and did some pleasurable activity, you will feel happier (or at least less sad).

We must realize, however, that once we have done the opposite action, many times, the work is not done. Acting opposite becomes the FIRST step to dealing with whatever the problem was that caused you to feel in a particular way. You would at some point need to confront whatever the situation was that lead to these feelings because it might not just go away once you do the opposite. It might also look very different after you've done opposite action. Here's an example.  I am very upset and angry at my dog because he pooped in the house. I want to yell at him and maybe even hit him because I am so angry and frustrated! Instead, I'm going to do opposite action. I'm going to speak to him softly instead of yelling at him, I'm going to pet him gently instead of hitting him. When my anger has subsided, when I'm feeling calm and relaxed, I'm going to be in a better frame of mind to think rationally and decide what can be done about this problem. Maybe he needs training or maybe he needs to be put outside more frequently for example. So opposite action doesn't necessarily cause a problem to go away but it is one step in feeling better overall.

Let's look at one more example. This time a problem that might go away all by itself simply because I did opposite action. I have a fear of taking the trash bins out to the street. Last time, I saw a big spider and now I'm fearful that I will get bit by a spider. I want to avoid taking the trash out (freezing or fleeing due to fear). Instead, I'm going to approach the feared object (those horrible trash cans and possible spiders about) and take them out to the street. In doing this, I might find that "hey! I didn't get bit by a spider! I didn't even SEE a spider!" I will feel brave and confident after doing that. I might have overcome my fear by simply not giving into it. And maybe, just to be sure, I might decide to wear gloves while I take the bins to the street. The point is, in this situation, the fear I felt was completely unjustified so by doing the opposite action, I feel the opposite of fear (in this case I feel confident and brave) and there may be nothing more to do because the problem went away all by itself.

Here is a simple graphic I created to help you determine what might be some possible opposite actions if you're struggling to determine what these might be. The key is not to say "just don't do that thing" because we want to give options for what CAN be done instead.

I hope you will give opposite action a try next time you find yourself out of emotional regulation. I wouldn't be a good therapist if I didn't add the following:

If you're really struggling with depression, anger, anxiety or feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or shame, please contact a licensed clinician because there is hope and help is available!