Using Opposite Action for Overwhelming Emotions

Are you ever overwhelmed by your emotions? Do you feel helpless when it comes to acting on them? All feelings come with action urges that tell us to act in certain ways. Sometimes, we use negative coping skills to escape painful emotions, because it feels like it’s the easiest way or the only way to cope.

For example, when we feel fearful, we often feel the urge to avoid or escape a situation. When angry, we quickly become defensive or lash out. When sad or depressed, we tend to withdraw, isolate, and become passive. With shame and guilt, we typically hide, avoid, or beg for forgiveness from others.

Have you ever considered doing the opposite of your usual response to your emotions? In DBT, the opposite action skill is a deliberate attempt to act OPPOSITE of your emotion urge. If your emotions are doing more harm than good, try acting opposite. Find the opposite action to our common emotion urges below.

Fear: If you feel afraid, approach the stimulus that gives you anxiety. Try confronting your fear. Do things to increase your sense of control and build mastery over your fear. You can repeatedly expose yourself to what you are afraid of in order to desensitize yourself.

Anger: If you’re mad, take a brief vacation from the situation or person that you’re angry with. This means avoiding someone who you’re frustrated with if you feel the urge to attack them. Also consider deep breathing exercises to calm down. Try to have sympathy or empathy for the other person - find the “nugget of truth” that you are able to focus on in order to feel even a small amount of sympathy.

Sadness: If you’re feeling down, approach, don't avoid the situation you’re upset with. Similar to dealing with fear, you want to build mastery over your emotion. Don't isolate yourself from others—get out and do something to keep yourself busy!

Shame: If the shame fits the facts—face the music. Apologize and repair the harm if you can. You need to accept the consequences of your actions and learn from them for the future. It is also important to forgive yourself and let it go. If the shame does NOT fit the facts, then you should participate fully in social interactions, and go public with your personal characteristics or behaviors.

Guilt: If your guilt fits the facts—experience the guilt. Ask, but don't beg for forgiveness and accept the consequences. Try to repair the transgression and work to make sure it doesn't happen again. If your guilt does NOT fit the facts, then don't apologize or try to make up for it. Instead, change your body posture, walk tall and maintain eye contact, with a steady and clear voice.

Remember that opposite action works best when your emotions do NOT fit the facts of a current situation. This means that your emotion, its intensity, and its duration is NOT EFFECTIVE in helping you achieve your goals. It is also important to throw yourself fully into the skill. Engage in opposite behaviors and use opposite emotion words, thinking, facial expression, tone of voice, and body postures!

If you’re just starting out with this technique, practice with less intense emotions first. Begin by identifying your emotion and the action urge associated with that emotion. Then, ask yourself if your emotion fits the facts and if acting on this emotion and urge be effective. Do you want to change your emotion? Identify the opposite action and do the opposite action FULLY. Finally, repeat doing so until the emotion decreases enough for you to notice. Once you have mastered this process, move on to more intense and problematic feelings so you can better cope with your emotions!