The power of opposites: A new tool for your mental health toolbox
Updated: May 4
Emotions are signals.
They communicate cues to us, help us connect to our experiences, understand our needs, and prompt us take meaningful action. For example, when we're angry with someone, maybe a boundary was violated. We can then respond to angry emotions by understanding the situation that triggered them, observing what they're needing, exploring what was unmet, and then using problem solving skills to engage in healthy conflict resolution. Or, fear. Fear can act like a warning sign, telling us that we're feeling unsafe, and nudge us to listen to our gut. Tending to our feelings, allowing them to be felt, and responding to them without judgment can help us feel better and live more meaningfully.
But emotions can also be misleading if we're perceiving them inaccurately.
Let's say we're used to responding to anger by lashing out, sending a nasty text, getting super defensive, or being aggressive towards others. Or we find ourselves habitually responding to fear by avoiding difficult situations at all costs and withdrawing in order to feel safe and calm.
Not so helpful, right?
Here's a pro tip that may help you deal with tough emotions without worsening your situation, your wellbeing, or your relationships.
Doing the opposite.
Yup, that's right. Doing the opposite of what your emotion is telling you to do can be handy when your emotion or its intensity does not quite match the situation that provoked it. Like when your partner asks you kindly to put your jacket away that you threw on the couch, and you feel heat rising, anger surfacing. Your emotional urge might compel you to say, "JEEZ! How about you tell me something I'm doing RIGHT!" Responding in that way will not only fuel your anger in the moment, but may also cause some relationship strife, causing your partner to feel surprisingly attacked, and adding tension to your evening if not addressed.
Instead of being defensive, doing the opposite action might look like feeling angry, but responding to the anger by taking a deep breath, acknowledging you're stressed from the day, picking up your jacket, hanging it up, kissing your partner and telling them, "Thanks for the reminder, honey, whew it's been a day." If we compare the two situations, barking at your partner out of irrational anger would be an unjustified response, and one that would not benefit your emotional wellbeing, either.
Or, if we're frustrated, and feeling unmotivated about getting a project done, we may give up all of a sudden, kick our feet back, say "screw it," and decide to watch TV all day instead of meeting our responsibilities maturely. Doing the opposite would mean giving it a shot, maybe taking a break, but coming back to your project and starting with step one because acting on the emotion would not actually be effective.
You may be wondering, "but isn't that suppressing your emotions, or dismissing them?"
Well, no. That's not it at all.
Opposite action is about strengthening your ability to respond to emotions intentionally and mindfully. When we are quick to react to emotions impulsively, we often perpetuate cycles of anxiety, loneliness, and shame.
Consider when we're feeling sad or lonely, and we withdraw, canceling the plans we had with friends, and ravenously start bingeing on all the cookies we baked last night in search of comfort, we're not really helping ourselves are we? We'll likely feel more disconnected, more sad, and more ashamed after that binge episode, not to mention now adding physically discomfort to our evening. But if we instead acknowledge our sadness. Allow it. And then respond to it by calling a friend, going on a walk instead of staying in, taking a long bath, cooking a nourishing meal and enjoying it while we listen to a podcast and sip some tea, we're actually helping ourselves and coping effectively.
Do you see the difference now?
Like all mental health skills, this one takes practice. Here's a few more examples:
Try it out when your depression is getting heavy by getting up, making the bed, and taking a shower instead of going back to sleep. Try it out when you're feeling ashamed by journaling about it or telling your therapist, instead of trying to run away from shame by stuffing it away. Try it out when you're fearful about an upcoming transition or change and taking the risk, leaning into fear, instead of avoiding anything new or scary. Try it out when your eating disorder is getting loud by eating a proper lunch, and opting for a yoga sesh instead of HIIT, instead of skipping that meal, or "making up for yesterday" by punishing yourself with cardio.
Our emotions are wise and always valid, but how we perceive, respond to them, and choose to interpret the situations that provoke them can have harmful consequences if we're approaching our feelings in dysregulated, numbing, or compulsive ways. Can you think of a time where using the "opposite action” made you feel better?
Opposite Action is a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skill from the work of Marsha Linehan, PhD, ABPP.