Opposite Action

By: Dan Martin, LCSW, CADC

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There are times that we all experience unwanted emotions. Whether it is anxiety, guilt, sadness or anger we can feel stuck emotionally and it is not where we want to be. But there is hope. We can learn skills that will help us manage our emotions. We can replace ineffective responses to our emotions with skillful responses. 

One resource we utilize at Samaritan is DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), a cognitive-behavioral treatment developed by Marsha Linehan. DBT provides a strategy to regulate emotions called Opposite Action. The idea is that every emotion has an action urge that is associated with that emotion. When we learn to respond to an unwanted emotion by acting in the opposite way - a way that is inconsistent with the emotion – we break the negative cycle that keeps us stuck in that emotion. The goal is not to block the emotion but to express a different emotion. Opposite action gives a choice about the emotional state we are in.

For example, when we are afraid or uncomfortable with something the urge is to avoid it. The opposite action is to gently approach it. If we feel overwhelmed we can make a list of small steps to take and then do the first thing on the list. As we continue to approach tasks, places or people we are afraid, of the anxiety lessens. When we feel guilty about something we did, or didn’t do, we want to hide. However, by learning to approach and repair the situation we can begin to make things better. Only by approaching can we repair the damage and lessen our guilt. When we are depressed or sad we want to shut down – pull the covers over our head and avoid the day. But when a friend drags us out for coffee or we somehow get ourselves to the gym, the depression begins to lift. We begin to feel more competent; less depressed. 

When we feel angry with someone we want to lash out, attack and find blame. The opposite action is to choose to be empathetic rather than blaming. We can say something nice rather than mean. We can at least be a little bit nice. When we do this we find a path away from the anger and towards emotions that are more positive and productive. 

Our actions and behavior communicate to our brains and initiate a change in how we feel. This is powerful knowledge. Using opposite action skills we can gain control over our emotions. We can choose actions that move us towards a more desirable emotional place. Try it. Identify the behaviors that keeps your anxiety, guilt, sadness or frustration activated and do the opposite.