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Dialectical Behavior Therapy: How Action Conquers Emotion

“I don’t feel like it.”

When stress overwhelms me, I withdraw. Usually a talkative Ted, I glance at my phone and mumble, “Not today,” as the phone buzzes. Unhealthy? Sure. Ingrained? You betcha!

Insert DBT — Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Or, as I call it, Don’t Be Timid. Stumbling across the emerging therapy, its simplicity registers. With DBT, opposite action is my guiding mantra.

Emotion fuels action, and when I am fearful or overwhelmed, I retreat into familiar creature comforts. Phone calls sit unreturned, dishes pile up, and bills mount. I stall, minimizing potential consequences. Coping mechanisms include devouring a box of peanut M&Ms and browsing the Internet for the latest Hawkeye and Tar Heel bracket projection. But, opposite action challenges these prevailing patterns.

Instead of dawdling, I act — even if I am fearful. The party where I don’t know a soul? The fallback option: wait until the anxiety passes. The problem: I may be waiting forever. Muttering to myself, I change, find a housewarming gift, and warmly greet the host. After coaxing myself to attend, I have a blast howling at workplace stories, chuckling at rambling toasts, and serenading the good-natured host. Opposite action personified. Instead of capitulating to my overriding emotion, I acknowledge the apprehension, accept it, and act in a healthy manner.

While emotional regulation is DBT’s central tenet, opposite action is a powerful tool to counter procrastination. Putting the pro in procrastinate, my car is filled with scribbled jottings from 2011. “Call so and so — Iowa City attorney” or “Apply for open position with Foundation.” If the default is “I will reach out to the job contact tomorrow,” tomorrow becomes 2016.

For you, cleaning your apartment, filing your taxes, or completing a research paper prompts procrastination. These are time-consuming endeavors, sure — but also necessary ones. According to Dr. Rhonda Williams, “We spend 80% of our time doing the 20% of things that are the least important, often we do the easiest things first because we can cross them off the list.” Dr. Williams — guilty as charged. All of us.

Opposite action theory unlocks a deceptively simple theory. While our chattering brain shrieks or hesitates or revolts, we are capable of disabling the panic button through action. When depression numbs you, this is the most opportune time to engage others, walk outside, or grab coffee in a bustling Starbucks.

Fear may be a four-letter word but life is too. Acknowledge the painful emotions; trust your actions, and, above all, Don’t Be Timid.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy: How Action Conquers Emotion

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Dialectical Behavior Therapy: How Action Conquers Emotion. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.