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An Opposite Action Can Change Everything

In our series walking through the skills, we are up to Cope Ahead and then Check the Facts. As I read those posts again, however, I really need to have someone else review them and get permission for a couple of stories that involve other people in my life. So, we will jump ahead today and cover Opposite to Emotion action.


Opposite to Emotion action is a fantastic skills that takes a lot of willingness, in my opinion. Setting the stage, you have an emotional reaction, that reaction is urging you to do something that you know will not be helpful. Maybe you’ve had a judgment like, “I don’t want to get up for work,” or maybe you are blazing with anger and you know that acting on it is not Wise Mind (don’t remember this skill? There’s a post about that a few weeks back.) Wise Mind is a skill where we blend the emotion and the reason to make a complete decision. Anyway, Opposite to Emotion action is a skill we can use when acting on our emotion does not fall into Wise Mind. When acting on the emotion will cause consequences we don’t want.


It’s for times when what we are feeling does not fit the facts of our current situation (maybe the feeling fits a time in the past when something was similar to this. I have lots of reactions that I recognize later on do not really fit the current facts. This is harder for me to admit than I thought. I mean, it’s not hard to say in one on one settings, and writing it here somehow feels different. I’ve come back to this paragraph to try and write several times and then all of the examples that I have just feel like ‘too much’ (that’s a judgment, yes). I don’t want to write any of those examples down here. I don’t exactly know what is fueling that, and I think digging into that would actually be me avoiding, so I’m going to do opposite action right now and keep writing.


To practice opposite to emotion action, I need to know what emotion I’m experiencing in order to have an idea what might be opposite to it. I’m going to wander through this right here. It could be fear. I may be afraid of what I’m feeling or of what the reactions may be if I write something really vulnerable here. I’m not classically afraid, though, I don’t notice the tell tale signs of fear. I notice an anxious quality to what I feel in my body, and yet I don’t think fear quite fits. I think it’s probably shame, and my hesitancy to write that seems to possibly confirm that is the feeling. I want to hide away. I want to run back into my office (I’m sitting outside writing) and play on my phone or some other action that takes me away.


Shame does not fit my current situation. It is highly unlikely that all of you reading this will reject me because I share how I’ve used this skill in the past. It is also unlikely that you will reject me because I report on a reaction where my emotion or its intensity does not fit the situation. I mean, we all have those reactions. It’s much more likely that you will either identify with my experience or simply disregard it because it does not fit for you. Me writing all of that is an opposite action reaction.


And I’m going to do another opposite to emotion action.


Recently, a therapist left LifeWork. She had been here a number of years (8 or 9, depending who you ask.) I care a lot about the people that work at LifeWork. When she announced that she had been offered another job, I believe I was very gracious about it. I told her that she needed to do what was best for her, that it was a great opportunity, and that it totally made sense for her to take it. I was angry, and I knew it did not fit the situation, so I acted kind. That’s one of the opposite actions for anger. The other would be gently avoiding the person.


I sat with that anger, the irritation, and I talked with several people about my reactions. As I chatted with those people who are close to me, something emerged that I was not really ready for. This situation mirrors several things from my past in which people left me. I had urges to do multiple very unkind things, which were fueled by those past experiences. I did not act on those urges. If I had, I would have needed to do some repairs to the damage I would have caused.


Eventually, I realized that I was feeling sad. I was sad about this person leaving. I was sad about multiple things that have happened along the way with this particular person. Using opposite to emotion action then allowed me to get access to that primary feeling underneath. I sat down and let some tears come. That irritation, and the anger, the urges to fix a perceived injustice by lashing out disappeared. I used mindfulness of current emotion to get those reactions to move on.


The original angry reactions were out of place. The intensity did not fit the current situation. For me, in this example, opposite to emotion action helped me to be more skillful as I wandered through the experience over the course of days (ok, several weeks actually.)


Opposite to emotion action can help in many very small ways and larger ones as well. This morning I wanted to stay in bed and I went ahead and got up anyway. I avoided writing this post and then this morning I decided to do it. In larger ways, opposite action can help us approach things we fear that are not dangerous, wander into things we believe are shameful and actually are not, and can help us not act on those urges to cause damage to those around us.


There’s a great book by Dr. Christine Dunkley that examines Opposite Action in DBT in much more eloquent and helpful ways than I can ever hope to do. It’s called Regulating Emotions the DBT Way, and I would highly recommend it if you have connected with this post in any meaningful way.

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