“The walls we build around us to keep sadness out also keeps out the joy.” – Jim Rohn
When you find yourself experiencing an emotion that is somehow getting in the way of harmonious relationships with others, pursuit of your goals, or living in accordance with your true values, opposite action can be an incredibly useful tool to have in your emotion regulation toolkit. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) encourages the use of opposite action when emotions are maladaptive, harmful, or overwhelming in some way. The idea is not to invalidate the reality of that emotional experience, but merely to transform that emotional experience into one that is more likely to bring about a desirable outcome.
If the idea of applying opposite action to painful or overwhelming emotions seems confusing or difficult to imagine putting into practice, it may be helpful to explore some practical examples of opposite action. As you read through the following emotional experiences and how to apply opposite action to them, try to reflect on your own typical emotional responses. We are all capable of a wide variety of complex emotions, but most of us have patterns or habits regarding our emotional responses to events. Becoming mindful of your personal tendencies can help you become more adept at recognizing your emotions more clearly and feeling confident in how to most effectively regulate the emotion.
What follows are the first five of ten examples of emotions and action tendencies, followed by a practical way to take opposite action. When we experience emotions, there are usually urges to take action (or inaction) that follow. For example, the emotional experience of anger may be followed by the action tendency of yelling. Or, the emotional experience of sadness may be followed by the action tendency to cry or socially withdraw. Again, be mindful of any emotions and action tendencies that you identify with and consider how you can apply practical opposite action to them in the future.
The experience of lethargy is often accompanied by a lack of mental, physical, and emotional energy. There may be urges to avoid doing much of anything. Lethargy may be accompanied by the sense that just about anything would take a colossal amount of effort. There is often a strong desire to sit and do nothing at all. Notice the way that the action (or “inaction”) urges associated with the experience of lethargy are unproductive in the sense that they only serve to intensify and prolong the lethargy, rather than move you through it. This a prime example of when it may be in your best interest to apply opposite action.
Taking Opposite Action:
Try making a list of things that you can do. Ideally, these should be things that can be realistically attained in the short-term. For example, despite a feeling of lethargy, you are capable of doing small things like washing the dishes, doing laundry, or tidying up. These are all behaviors that directly go against the feeling of lethargy, which can create an opposite emotional experience. Effective opposite action requires willingness to throw yourself into the task at hand, even if you don’t “feel like it.” The idea is to focus on how you will feel as a result of acting opposite to the current emotional experience.
(2) Social Withdrawal
Social withdrawal is often experienced as a desire to avoid contact with other people and isolate oneself from contact with the world. There may be an accompanying emotional experience of sadness or depression. When you feel yourself withdrawing from others, there is often a feeling that it would take monumental effort to make contact with people and a sense of not wanting others to see you in a state of sadness.
Taking Opposite Action:
Make the choice to actively reach out to a friend or loved one, even if it feels difficult. Try making a list of things you would like to talk about with them and remind yourself of how contact with this person often results in positive feelings. Another way to take opposite action would be to give support or express interest in others. Often times, when you give the very thing that you feel yourself needing, the result can be quite positive. Continue to reach out to others until you actively notice the feeling of withdrawal decreasing.
(3) Fear of Failure
A fear of failure may be related to a fear of being “exposed” as inadequate in some way. This fear may result in being limited as far as being willing to take on risks or challenges in life. Many people feel a sense that deep down they are incompetent in some way, and fear that if others “find them out” that something disastrous might happen. If you identify with a deep rooted fear of failure, it may be worthwhile to examine some of your core beliefs about yourself and sense of worth.
Taking Opposite Action:
Try making a list of all the reasons that you truly are competent and capable of success. Actively challenge any cognitive distortions that are serving to maintain your fear of failure. Remind yourself that perfection is not the goal; right now, it is willingness to perform and engage. Try separating your behavior (e.g., working on a challenging project) from your emotion of fear. Remind yourself that you are capable of working and tolerating the emotional experience of fear. Like all emotions, it will pass and has no more power over you than you are willing to give it. Engage in your work and when you mindfully notice your fear, take slow deep breaths and allow it to pass. Rather than fighting against it, simply acknowledge it with mindfulness, breathe into it, and let it go.
(4) Fear of Rejection
The fear of rejection is somewhat similar to the fear of failure in the sense that it is often rooted in maladaptive core beliefs and rife with cognitive distortions. This emotional experience may result in a consequence such as avoiding asking other people to spend time with you out of a fear of rejection. You may even tell yourself that they have “something better” to do or that you don’t want to “look needy.” The fear of rejection serves a temporarily useful purpose of keeping you safe from potential rejection and allowing you to avoid emotional vulnerability, but the long-term cost can be unfulfilling relationships with others.
Taking Opposite Action:
Recognize that no one “wants” to feel rejected. Ask yourself if you are willing to tolerate the temporary fear of rejection if it meant having close and meaningful relationships with others. What is more important to you? The moment that something shifts inside and you decide that fulfilling relationships with others are more important than the temporary fear of being rejected, you will be willing to take the risk of reaching out to others. Take some time to examine the cost that “protecting” yourself has had throughout your life. Remind yourself that the longer you avoid taking the risk to reach out to others, the more the fear will grow. The sooner and more frequently you take those risks, the more quickly the fears will dissipate.
Guilt can be an incredibly useful emotion when it is providing you with important information about a transgression that you have made. It is useful in the sense that the uncomfortable emotional experience of guilt is nagging at you to take action to make amends. When you take the time to apologize to people you have hurt or to make up for your mistakes, the emotion of guilt subsides. Many people experience guilt when they have acted in a way that is not in line with their true values or with the type of person they wish to be. There may be intense fear of apologizing to those you have hurt, which can result in the guilt lingering on.
Taking Opposite Action:
It is important to first take the time to mindfully assess whether or not your guilt is justified, or if you are experiencing unjustified guilt. Really examine what it is that you did and ask yourself if that behavior was truly hurtful to another person or if that behavior was out of line with your true values or morals. If you really have done something that you regret, recognize that you have the power to alleviate your feeling of guilt if you take action. This means reminding yourself of how much better you are going to feel when you make amends for any wrongdoings. Perhaps that means apologizing to someone you have hurt or otherwise righting a wrong. Even if it feels scary, opposite action for guilt means taking the leap and being willing to tolerate temporary discomfort in the pursuit of long-term emotional well-being.
In my next post, I look forward to exploring five more practical examples of opposite action. As you begin to get more comfortable with the concept of applying opposite action, begin to mindfully notice times throughout your typical day when you find yourself experiencing emotions that are somehow holding you back or keeping you stuck. Perhaps it is a particularly unpleasant, intense, or persistent emotion. Honestly examine your thoughts and behaviors and ask yourself if you are choosing thoughts and behaviors that are only serving to intensify the unpleasant emotion. Ask yourself if you are willing to tolerate temporary discomfort in order to move through the unpleasant emotion.
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Marra, T. (2004). Depressed & anxious: The dialectical behavior therapy workbook for overcoming depression and anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: day52 by the half-blood prince / CC BY-ND 2.0