Our thoughts and emotions generally dictate what we do. Which makes sense since we act based on the information our brains automatically give us. So if we’re anxious about speaking in public, we probably will avoid it. After all, we interpret it as a threat, and our brains—and bodies—don’t like threats. If we’re sad, deeply sad, we might isolate ourselves, for days, because we yearn to be alone. If we’re angry with our spouse, we might yell and say mean things because we can taste the rage.
But there are times, like in the instances above, when acting on our emotions isn’t helpful or is downright destructive. There are also times when our emotions don’t match a situation.
This is when a skill from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) called “opposite action” is invaluable. It’s a skill that helps us to manage our emotions, enhance our relationships and enhance our lives. It’s a skill that helps us make more healthful decisions.
“Opposite action is essentially doing the opposite of what the emotion is telling you to do,” said Sheri van Dijk, MSW, RSW, who specializes in DBT and has penned several books on the treatment. “We use this skill when we recognize that an emotion is not warranted by the situation, or when the emotion is getting in the way of our ability to act effectively, with the aim of reducing that emotion.”
For instance, you find yourself falling in love with someone who seems unavailable and maybe even acts in toxic ways. You have the urge to connect with them, but realize that this love isn’t healthy and will cause you more pain in the long run, van Dijk said. So you acknowledge the urge, and do the opposite: You stop seeing them.
“Opposite action is powerful, because it helps you to recognize that your ‘thoughts are not facts’ and that you do not have to act on all of the urges that you experience,” said Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, a therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland, who specializes in eating disorders, body image issues, anxiety and depression. “Instead, you can learn how to sit with an urge and then take an ‘opposite action.’”
In other words, just because you think it and just because you feel it doesn’t mean that you have to behave accordingly. In other words, you aren’t shackled to your thoughts and feelings. You can be thoughtful about the next step you take.
Below are the specifics on using opposite action, according to Rollin:
- Identify the emotion you’re experiencing.
- Consider whether the emotion—both its intensity and duration—fits the facts of the situation. Sometimes, the emotion does fit, as is the case with feeling anxious before a big exam. And sometimes, it doesn’t—like when you’re petrified about eating at a restaurant. Also, consider whether acting on the urge will be effective long term. Again, studying for your big exam is an effective action to take with good long-term results (you ace the class and graduate). Feeling intense anxiety over eating out can cause you to stop socializing. “Over time, this avoidance behavior only serves to make the anxiety worse,” Rollin said. Another strategy is to think of a friend in your same situation. Sometimes when we see circumstances from the perspective of an outsider, we’re able to be objective or wiser. We’re able to make more helpful, supportive decisions.
- Decide whether you’re going to act on your urge or do the opposite. Again, sit with the urge before doing anything, so you can make an intentional choice. For instance, in the eating out example, you decide to go to the restaurant to celebrate your best friend’s birthday—even though you feel anxious and afraid. You do this because being present for your loved ones and building your relationships matters to you. It’s one of your values.
You can take opposite actions with anything—big or small—to help support, nurture and honor yourself. For instance, if you have the urge to self-harm, you apply lotion instead, Rollin said. If you have the urge to restrict your food, you decide to eat a nourishing meal, she said.
If you have the urge to yell, you calmly share your thoughts, so you can have productive conversations, van Dijk said. If you have the urge to check your phone (and you’re supposed to be working), you pause, close your eyes and take several deep breaths. Instead of connecting to the outside world, you choose to reconnect to yourself—and then return to your work.
If you have the urge to keep your struggles a secret because you feel shame, you seek therapy to work through your problems and work toward your life goals, van Dijk said.
This skill is not easy, and may not come naturally—at first. This is totally understandable and OK. Because we’re so used to responding to our urges. Remind yourself that “learning new skills can take time and practice, [so try to] be patient with yourself in the process,” Rollin said.