Opposite Action for Emotion Regulation

Dr. Elisheva Jakobov-Assouline

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) was invented by Dr. Marsha Linehan for individuals experiencing emotions intensely. DBT works with dialectics which involves combining opposites, such as change and acceptance. For example, instead of thinking you are a failure, a better way to say that would be “sometimes I fail, and sometimes I succeed.”

DBT includes four modules, one of which is emotion regulation. The goal in emotion regulation is to help the client understand their emotions, decrease the frequency of unpleasant emotions as well as vulnerability to emotions, and to decrease emotional suffering. Emotions, both good and bad, are critical as they communicate information to us about our environments and experiences and activate us to respond and behave in certain ways.  Sometimes the emotions we experience can cause us to engage in behaviors that further exacerbate our distress and are not helpful to us. Individuals may use negative coping skills to escape painful emotions because it is either the only option they are familiar with, or because it is easiest.

Emotions occur typically in response to a trigger. Emotions come with action urges. Let’s say you are feeling very hungry. You may then eat. Or perhaps you are feeling tired, so it activates you to take a nap. If you are depressed, you may withdraw from others. If you are angry, you may yell. If you are fearing something, you most likely will avoid.

Opposite Action is a skill in DBT that helps individuals respond to their emotions more adaptively. It involves identifying the action urge associated with the overwhelming emotion we are feeling intensely and consciously engaging in the opposite behavior. By acting opposite, you can change the emotion. Opposite Action is most effective when your emotional response is unjustified or unhelpful. When your emotions do not fit the facts, or when acting on your emotions is not helpful, use this skill.

Try to engage in the following steps to help guide you until you notice a decrease in your emotions:

  • Identify the emotion you are experiencing. Are you angry? Sad? Frustrated?
  • Identify the action urge that accompanies the emotion.
  • Identify whether your action urge fits the facts of the situation.
  • If it does not, do the opposite of what your urge is telling you to do.
  • Act opposite all the way to your action urges.
  • Continue doing the opposite until your emotions change.

Below are some common emotions and how one would utilize this skill.

  • Anger: if you are angry, and you want to either yell at someone or hurt them, it is best to do the opposite. Rather than engaging in these behaviors, acting opposite, would look like taking a break. Physically remove yourself from the source of anger and try to calm down by taking a few deep breaths. Instead of being so angry, try to practice compassion towards the individual who you are angry with.
  • Shame: Perhaps you are feeling shameful about something you may have done. If the shame does not fit the facts, talk about it publicly in a group of others who will accept and support you.
  • Fear: if you are experiencing fear, you may avoid. Rather than avoiding, expose yourself to the fear. The more you expose yourself, the less fear you will experience over the course of time. Try to build a sense of mastery over your fear.
  • Sad: If you are feeling sad, you may want to go to sleep and withdraw yourself from others. Don’t give into that action urge. Get up and go out. Do something with your time and meet up with friends.

Often, one’s emotions gets the best of them. They engage in maladaptive behavior in the moment. Next time you are feeling an overwhelming sense of emotion, and your emotion does not fit the fact, try this skill. Try starting with less intense emotions and continue doing it till your emotion decreases. Once you have successfully mastered the less intense emotions, try practicing this skill with the harder emotions. You may be surprised to see how helpful it can be to act opposite to your action urge associated with the emotion you want to change.   

Dr. Aryeh Berlin is a New Jersey licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Aspire Psychological Group. Dr. Berlin has vast clinical training experiences including a residential adolescent addiction treatment center in Israel, community mental health centers, and youth detention centers. Dr. Berlin has lectured on parenting children with emotional and behavioral difficulties, child development, helping children with school-related challenges and trauma. Audiences included attorneys, mental health professionals, parents, and educators.

Opposite Action for Emotion Regulation