The Importance and Effects of Opposite Action

In therapy circles, there is a mode called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy [2]. As a type of behavior therapy, it aims to give the person seeking therapy skills to navigate through everyday life and relationships by modifying their behavior. DBT is often called in for those who suffer from intense, negative emotions and react quite badly to those emotions. (It was originally created for Borderline Personality Disorder, but has been found helpful for other mental health issues!)

To quote from the second link, “As its name suggests, DBT is influenced by the philosophical perspective of dialectics: balancing opposites. The therapist consistently works with the individual to find ways to hold two seemingly opposite perspectives at once, promoting balance and avoiding black and white—the all-or-nothing styles of thinking. In service of this balance, DBT promotes a both-and rather than an either-or outlook. The dialectic at the heart of DBT is acceptance and change.”

An important skill in DBT is learning how to take what therapists call Opposite Action. Simply put, opposite action is doing the opposite of what you feel like doing. *Not that simple.

DBT breaks down Opposite action into four steps:

1 Identify the emotion. Are you angry? Ashamed? Sad? `
2 Identify the action urge that accompanies the emotion. Do you want to punch a person or an object? Isolate yourself? Seek support and call a friend?
3 Identify whether the action urge fits the facts of the situation (not the facts of the emotion).
4 If your emotions and their urges don’t fit the situation, then channel your inner rebel and do the opposite of what the urge wants you to do. Continue to do opposite action until you notice a decrease in your emotions. In time, you will be able to see and feel the difference.

Taken from Sunrise Residential Treatment Center’s website. The full article is cool so you should read it.

This naturally takes some practice- it’s a skill, like anything else. Steps one and two can be attained through different mindfulness techniques and introspective sessions. (At least, that’s what I’ve been doing.)

Step three is a bit tricky. What does it mean to “fit the facts of the situation”?

Checking if an emotion fits the facts is to check if your reaction is appropriate to the situation. We have a tendency to think that our emotions are intrinsically tied to reality. Fortunately, this isn’t so.

Emotions are built upon a foundation of perception, temperament, decision, and conditioning, and as such, can go awry. Emotions are reactions to stimuli that we ourselves think is the appropriate level of response. So it’s complicated.

To use a benign example, let’s say you have a bad experience with a rather large dog as a child. (little you want to pets. big dog growl. big dog bite. little you cry.) Now you’ve learned that big dogs bite. And being bitten sucks. And you really don’t want that level of pain and disappointment again. So, in a gross oversimplification, your cute little monkey brain labels “DOGS ARE DANGEROUS” and advises you to avoid them. And how does your rather ancient and sometimes brilliantly stupid brain keep you away from dangerous things? By setting off whatever reaction necessary to keep your stupid fingers away from teeth.

So, it chooses fear. (Fear is strong stuff.) It looks kinda like this: Eyes see dog. Brain sees “thing marked as DANGER”. Brain says “NOT THAT”, and triggers your Sympathetic nervous system.

But here’s the rub. Are all dogs DANGER? Nah. Some, yes. Very yes. But most dogs just really want to be your best friend and have lots of pets. This dog you see now in the example is one of those. So your fear doesn’t “fit the facts”.

So we switch our brains from “pure emotion reactive monkey mode” to “I’m a rational human being and can control my cognitive functions mode” and analyze the situation. Even if you still feel frickin’ terrified of that dog, you can look at it from a distance and realize they aren’t a threat. This is where you engage in step four, and do the opposite of what your reactive brain is telling you to do; Pet the dog.

This process isn’t limited to the dog. Replace the dog with your partner, or a coworker, or a situation at work, or your greatest fear. Or getting out of bed. Getting chores done. The mundane that your depression and anxiety seem to make impossible and you feel horrible when you face.

This does a few things: First, it helps you recondition your response. You learn not all dogs are DANGER. Two, you learn that even if you feel that strong emotion and go against it, you’ll actually make it out okay. Maybe even for the better. And that alone can go along way to making you feel a lot better. (Heck yeah bring on the reward system!) Third, then this helps you to change your perspectives on the world. (Which is scary and cannot be forced through thought alone. It must be acted out willingly.) And four, it gives you power over yourself.

Being at the whim of your emotions is a terrible thing to experience, and a terrible life to live. It’s exhausting and can severely damage your relationships. Often one can feel like they simply “can’t do anything”, much less do it right. Often there’s a strong sense of shame and guilt- especially after an “episode” where you lose control of your emotions. You shrink from the world, shirk responsibility, and avoid anything challenging. And that will destroy a person.

But gaining control over your emotions does a lot for your sense of self-competence. You begin to feel like you can take on the world- maybe even win! You become more responsible because now you realize you can handle it. You begin to see yourself as someone worth taking care of and interacting with. You’re a little bit genuinely nicer each time you interact. You do better at work and home and in your social life and your moods begin to regulate themselves.

You see, the main principle behind opposite action is that our bodies believe we feel what we’re acting out. (Your mind interprets the world as a place of action, not a place of things.) This is the idea behind “fake it until you make it”. If you smile with your whole face you feel happier. If you stand up tall and face the world you think you can take on dragons. (or that deadline at work. Whichever.) If you act nice you begin to be nice. (I don’t mean the word act as to pretend. I mean taking the action itself. There is a difference.)

The same goes for negative emotions. If you act lethargic, you’ll lose energy. If you act angry or fearful, you’ll be angry or fearful.

There also is the idea that taking an action opposite of your temperament (within the Five Factor model) can alleviate symptoms of depression. For example, if you’re normally quite extroverted, taking time for yourself without socializing. Or if you’re very open and not very conscientious, taking time to get things in order. Etc etc… It can be a clearing and refreshing thing, and you also learn something by going outside your normal domain of operation. (which will also increase your competence and bring all the benefits of that!)

If this seems daunting, or hard to relate to, Mindfulness Muse has an article with a few examples of opposite action that are quite practical. It’s really a quite helpful article- especially for dealing with the negative aspects of depression and anxiety like lethargy, guilt, fear, and anger. They also have more links on Opposite Action like this one on painful emotions, and how it can transform negative emotions into positive ones!

Remember that Opposite action is about the transformation of emotion and not repression or denial of that emotion. Things only get bigger when you try to hide from them.

“You have a choice before you. Confront the truth by honestly assesing the alternatives. Acknowledge the price of your options.”

Brandon Mull, Beyonders Series.

Please note that some of the links provided may lead to websites that want to sell you products. I am not affiliated with any of these websites and am not attempting to push you towards certain brands or products. I have simply used those links for the information they contain.
Again, this blog is for informational purposes. I am not a professional. It should not be an exclusive source to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.

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