If you’ve ever experienced overwhelming negative emotions, such as anger or sadness, then you may already have certain coping methods that you’ve learnt over time to deal with them. Sometimes, these coping methods can be unhelpful behaviours that we use as a way to avoid the situation or protect ourselves. Opposite Action is a skill taught in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) that can help us break unhelpful behaviours or harmful coping methods and cope better with overwhelming emotions.
In this guide, we’ll go through some of the potential emotions that would benefit from this skill starting from some of the lesser emotions and working our way up. When practising this skill, it’s recommended you start with smaller emotions before trying it out on bigger overwhelming emotions such as sadness or anxiety. We also highly recommend talking to a medical professional if you are experiencing long periods of negative emotions such as low mood or anxiety.
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Fear of Failure or Rejection
This can be a common negative emotion that stems from issues such as Imposter Syndrome, Perfectionism or All-or-Nothing Thinking. It generally stems from an unhelpful core belief of ourselves and a lack of self-esteem. When we fear failure or rejection we may find ourselves unwilling to take any risks, talk to new people, or try something new. A fear of failure or rejection can hold us back from many new and exciting opportunities in life too.
Opposite Action for Fear of Failure or Rejection
If you find yourself shying away from new things of people because of this, then consider the Opposite Action of actually putting yourself out there. It can be helpful to start by challenging any cognitive distortions or core beliefs by writing a list of your successes or the times when someone new welcomed you with open arms. Remember that fear is a temporary emotion and only has as much power as you’re willing to give it.
If you’re feeling a complete lack of motivation, enthusiasm, physical or emotional energy, then you may be experiencing apathy or lethargy. This became quite common during the Pandemic and is often known as languishing, where we feel like we don’t have much pleasure in doing anything at all – or simply don’t have the energy to do it. Many of us experiencing this will want to simply sit and do nothing at all, which can actually just prolong this emotion as opposed to coping with it.
Opposite Action for Lethargy/Apathy
Instead of succumbing to lethargy or apathy, try the Opposite Action by writing a list of all the small things you can do right now. This could be making your bed, jogging on the spot, or taking a shower. Now, do one of those things! You need to be willing to throw yourself into the task (however small) even when you don’t particularly feel like it. This podcast episode and extra resources on motivation may help too. If you are experiencing this emotion for long periods of time then it may be part of a bigger issues, however. Please do consider talking to a medical professional if this is the case.
When we experience shame or guilt, a common unhelpful behaviour is to hide away. We feel as though we should isolate ourselves and deal with the shame or guilt internally, often beating ourselves up about it mentally. This can be unhelpful as it doesn’t allow us to actually deal with the emotion or why we may be feeling that way. When we experience guilt, we may also apologise even if it’s not our place to!
Opposite Action for Shame/Guilt
In both of these instances, the Opposite Action is to face the feelings and any consequences that may come with them – but only if justified! If you are feeling shame or guilt because you have done wrong by someone, then you should apologise and repair any harm if possible. However, if the feeling of shame or guilt isn’t justified then you shouldn’t feel as though you should apologise or make up for it. Spend some time assessing whether the guilt or shame is justified or not before deciding which route to take.
When we are feeling overwhelmed or stressed because there’s just so much to do, a common unhelpful behaviour is to bury our heads in the sands. We can often feel as though it’s impossible to deal with anything and so decide not to deal with the issues causing us overwhelm or stress.
Opposite Action for Overwhelm/Stress
If we bury our heads in the sands then this can often lead to even more overwhelm and stress, so the Opposite Action is to deal with things head on. A great example of this is to Brain Dump our to do lists and pick just one thing we’d like to tick off. As we get the ball rolling it becomes easier to deal with whatever is causing us the overwhelm or stress.
Anger can be a hard emotion to deal with and can often lead to a reactive behaviour such as getting into an argument or being on the defensive. Anger is not necessarily a negative emotion (and Gemma has a great lesson on this for members here), but our reaction to this emotion can be difficult to manage.
Opposite Action for Anger
If anger takes over and makes us want to attack or defend, then the Opposite Action is to find calm and acceptance in the situation instead. This may be by showing kindness or concern for the person causing the anger or even just walking away. Often, removing yourself from the situation instead of engaging can help us process this overwhelming emotion before reacting.
People have lots of different coping methods when it comes to feelings of sadness, grief or low mood. Some people may feel as though they want to withdraw and hide away, and others will want to spend as much time in their sadness as possible. Both of these can actually prolong these feelings of low mood and, if they go on for long periods of time, can lead to even more unhelpful behaviours. Remember, if you are experiencing long periods of low mood then we highly recommend you talk to a doctor or therapist.
Opposite Action for Sadness
While it may seem hard to even consider an Opposite Action for sadness when you’re in the depths of it, learning this skill can be hugely beneficial. Instead of withdrawing and hiding away, consider reaching out to people and making connections instead. Instead of being inactive and feeling as though nothing can be done, get active and take positive steps towards happiness using tools such as gratitude, mindfulness, and challenging cognitive distortions.
Just like with fear of failure or rejection, anxiety can make us feel paralysed. When we’re feeling anxious, we tend to move away from whatever it is that’s making us feel this way (eg, social situations, flying, driving, etc). This is very common and how we feel as though we can protect ourselves from whatever is anxiety-provoking for us. In most cases, talking to a therapist can help with anxiety and we highly recommend this if this emotion is taking over your day-to-day life.
Opposite Action for Anxiety
The opposite action for anxiety is to go towards the thing we’re anxious of, to build courage, and not to run or hide. Of course, this is a big overwhelming emotion to deal with and this can often be easier said than done for many. Graded exposure can really help when it comes to building up our opposite actions for anxiety.
Remember, these are just examples and your Opposite Action may be different to the ones we’ve given. What is important is that we use these Opposite Actions whenever we are engaging in old unhelpful behaviours that are prolonging negative emotions. You may find it helpful to talk through your own unhelpful behaviours or difficult emotions with a therapist.