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Opposite to Emotion Action

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

You probably didn’t think you’d ever hear a therapist advise you to act opposite to your emotions, but today you’re going to! Opposite to emotion action is an Emotion Regulation skill from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Emotion Regulation is a module that stresses ways to decrease the intensity of emotions, or to give you a break from what you are feeling for a bit. Opposite to emotion action focuses on ways to reduce your emotional suffering.

To utilize this skill, we first need to accurately identify what emotion we are feeling. We then need to understand the action impulse or urge that emotion triggers in us that is unhelpful. When I say unhelpful, I mean actions that typically only increase the duration and intensity of the original emotion as opposed to calming us down or handling an emotion.

If there is something effective that we can DO to relieve our emotional distress, DO IT! Opposite to emotion action only comes in the picture during certain specific circumstances. You would consider the use of opposite to emotion action if:

· The intensity with which you are feeling your emotion really doesn’t match the “facts” of the situation at hand (ie. you feel furious at your coworker for forgetting to CC you on an email- a more appropriate level of anger may be annoyance or concern)

· The emotion itself is not appropriate for the “facts” of the situation (ie. you have asked your partner to give you feedback, but then feel extremely hurt with them when they take the opportunity)

· The action urge associated with your emotion would take you further away from your goals or values (ie. you value honesty and you feel an action urge to lie to someone about a mistake you made because you feel guilty)

When 1 or more of these circumstances are met, it may be a good time to consider opposite to emotion action. Opposite to emotion action allows us to take a “break” from extreme emotions and provides an opportunity for us to “come back to it” once we are in a more reasonable mindset. It also stops us from experiencing the guilt that comes when we take actions that are based in emotions that are not just, are “too big for the situation”, or go against our higher values and goals.

Once we know what emotion we are experiencing, and what the action urge our emotion mind is telling us to do, we can start the process of figuring out what the opposite action is. For example, lets return to the idea of your partner giving you feedback during an argument that you asked for. You decide that you feel angry (attacked), and the action urge you’d like to take is to remind them of every single bad thing they’ve ever done in the relationship. You decide this isn’t justified anger because you DID ask for feedback, and they gave it to you in a compassionate manner. Opposite to emotion action would be to tell them something you appreciate about them (possibly appreciation that they have taken the opportunity to give you that feedback) and to NOT bring up past hurts in that moment.

Below I am going to list a few other basic emotions, typical behavioral responses to those emotions, and what the opposite action would be.

· You feel SAD. You want to lay in bed all day and call out of work. You decide this response is too intense for the situation (a fight with your mom) and goes against your goal of employment. Instead, you get up, shower, go to work, go on a walk after work, and come back to your bed at the end of the day when it is appropriate.

· You feel GUILTY. You want to engage in self-hatred all day and revisit every mistake you’ve ever made. You decide this is too intense to fit the crime committed, as it was an honest mistake. Instead, you write a list of your positive attributes or ways you have contributed to others/the world positively.

· You feel SCARED to attend a new workout studio. You’ve accessed that you are not in true danger and that emotion is not justified, but also that this action goes against your goal of challenging your fitness this year. You would like to avoid and cancel your class. Instead, you force yourself to sign up for the class, go in early, say hi to staff, get a tutorial from staff, and attend the class.

· You feel ANGRY. You would like to call friends and gossip about the person who has made you upset. This goes against your value of kindness, but also you suspect that maybe you are a little too angry in this moment and may need time to clear your head before you speak about the matter. Instead, you journal about your feelings on the situation privately and force yourself to acknowledge something GOOD about that person.

Opposite to emotion action creates a slow and steady change in your emotional experience by sending messages to your brain that we do not always need to “buy into” the emotions we first experience, nor act on them. This skill can also help us take a little “break” from an emotion that we can revisit later if necessary. This skill is NOT about emotional avoidance, because we must introspect to know what we are feeling, what our unhelpful urges are, and why we would consider doing the opposite. For this skill to work, you must commit to it 100%! You also may have to do it over and over again before you notice an emotional shift in yourself.

I hope this blog has given you a clearer understanding of when to do opposite to emotion action, and what some of those ideas may sound like! Taking a break from emotions is important. Our emotions are transient, and we aren’t meant to stay “stuck” in one emotion completely. Think of this as a way to take breaks and potentially come back with a refreshed state of mind and ideas!

Written by: Kelly Birkhold LCSW (providing individual, couples, and family therapy, as well as DBT skills training 1:1)

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