Rebel Against Your Emotions : Opposite to Emotion Action
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
The focus of today’s post is an emotional regulation technique built on the premise Do differently in order to Feel differently, called Opposite to Emotion Action.
At any given moment, when we react to situations there is a constant interaction between our thoughts, our emotions, our physical sensations and our behaviours.
This is the fundamental concept of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Our thoughts affect and determine our emotions, which in turn affect and determine our behaviours. Moreover, we attribute interpretations to the various physical sensations we perceive in our body, something that further activates the cycle. All interactions are bidirectional, which means that each of these elements can influence the others.
With this in mind, CBT states that if we intend to change any aspect of our lives, we are basically required to either focus on changing the way we think about it (the cognitive part of CBT), the way we feel about it (by regulating our emotions) or what we actually do about it (the behavioural part of CBT).
Any change in thoughts, emotions or behaviour will inevitably cause a change in all other elements, as is evident by taking another look at this wheel.
The origins of Opposite to Emotion Action: Dialectical Behaviour Therapy
Opposite to Emotion Action is a technique from the toolkit of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, a therapy approach that was developed from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy teaches us that we always have two options towards any distressing situation: We can either Change it, or Accept it.
Further, DBT is divided in four different skills training modules: Distress Tolerance and Mindfulness skills are mostly oriented towards Acceptance, while Interpersonal Effectiveness and Emotion Regulation skills are aimed towards Change.
The Opposite to Emotion Action is an emotion regulation skill.
What is Opposite to Emotion Action?
Each emotion is actually a Call to Action. When you feel an emotion, it urges you to do something, to act on it accordingly. Seen this way, an emotion causes or triggers specific actions. When you act in the way the emotion urges you to, then it intensifies and the vicious cycle explained above is further activated.
However, by acting in the opposite way that the emotion urges you to, you can eventually change the emotion. You first tackle the action that is associated with the emotion, and then the emotion by itself subdues.
Since this is an emotion regulation technique, the focus is distressing, negative and unpleasant emotions that you wish to handle and regulate.
The technique basically teaches you to set in motion an action that is helpful and positive, instead of maladaptive and damaging, as a response to a negative emotional state, in order to manage your emotions better.
Applying a Reverse Action will subsequently and gradually cause a change in emotion, thus making the unpleasant emotion to reduce and eventually dissipate.
The reason for this is that you do not further feed the negative emotion by acting on it, but you actually counteract it.
When to use Opposite to Emotion Action?
This technique can greatly help, when you are dealing with distressing emotions or when you feel upset, overwhelmed and emotionally flooded, therefore more prone to act impulsively, in harmful, self-sabotaging ways for both yourself and others.
In situations where you feel out of control, when your emotions are out of proportion compared to the situation that brought them up, when you feel you are overreacting, when your emotions escalate higher and higher beyond your control…
In other words, if an emotion or its intensity is not justified, meaning it does not completely fit the situation, then it is a good idea to consider doing Opposite to Emotion Action all the way.
Opposite to Emotion action means deliberately choosing alternative ways of behaving when your emotional experience causes you suffering.
But isn’t this Suppression and Denial of this emotion?
Well actually no, Opposite to Emotion Action is not suppression at all!
In a previous blog post, I emphasized specifically that Thought Suppression does not work. Emotional Suppression also doesn’t: You just can’t convince yourself with logic to stop feeling the way you do. You cannot force your way to emotional change by suppressing or denying your current emotional state; I actually dare you to try it out, to find out for yourself that it is ineffective!
By employing Opposite to Emotion Action, you are not denying your emotion. You first recognize and accept it, but then, you challenge it, by acting in the opposite way than what it wants you to. You claim your control over your emotions, by showing that You are your own master, not whichever turbulent emotional state.
All emotions are absolutely ok!
You are completely allowed to feel however you feel at any given situation. It is how you act directly after that matters. Our behaviour is subject to our direct control , even if our emotions aren’t. You can choose to act on any specific emotion.
Impulses and urges are what cause you trouble, by making you act in ways you may later regret, that damage valuable aspects of your life, as discussed in the Impulsivity blog post a few weeks ago.
Basic negative emotions and their subsequent actions and Opposite Actions…
Below you can find some basic emotions that are often subject to change or regulation in therapy, with their usual associated actions and opposite actions.
The typical actions of fear and anxiety are escape and avoidance in an attempt to protect yourself from whatever you assess as threatening.
This is biologically wired in our systems; if you see a huge beast in the woods, you will most likely want to hide or escape the danger, unless you assess that you could win over in case of an attack, in which case you might approach it.
Similarly, if you are socially anxious, you may find yourself avoiding social situations or withdrawing from others once in a social setting, out of embarrassment, shyness or fear of rejection. If you are afraid of airplanes, you may prefer other ways of travel and avoid flights. If you are afraid of commitment, you may lead a solitary lifestyle, with casual romantic contacts and adventures, but tend to paralyze at the prospect of emotional intimacy and therefore avoid it at all costs.
Avoidance is the coupled action to fear. By engaging in avoidance, you actually give in to fear and intensify it because you don’t give yourself the chance to prove you are in control, and not your fear and anxiety. It is quite paradoxical; you eliminate anxiety by avoiding threatening situations, but you subsequently can’t learn that you actually do have the capacity to face those situations.
Opposite Actions: Approach and Confront / Fight Response / Exposure
If escape and avoidance are the Flight response to threat and danger, then the designated opposite action is the Fight response.
You approach the situation inquisitively, curiously, prepared to confront whatever makes you fearful, nervous or anxious. Exposing yourself to a fearful stimulus is the way to conquer it, by disconfirming beliefs of lack of control to yourself.
The typical actions of Anger are attack and confront.
When you are angry, you are urged to lash out, explode, attack, defend yourself. This attack is not necessarily physical, but it can also be just yelling to the object of your anger, arguing, devaluing them, being verbally abusive, saying things you don’t really mean. You may feel urged to break or damage something, anything.
Anger is a call to action towards harm and violence. It is by itself not a bad emotion, in itself it aims to protect you. But if you allow yourself to be a victim of your anger and act out on it, it can have detrimental effects in various areas of your life: you may end up in undesired situations or damage relationships. If you cannot manage your anger, then you may feel like a walking bomb, ready to explode at the presence of threatening triggers.
Opposite Actions: Distraction / Distance / Acts of Love, Empathy and Sympathy instead.
A usual advice for anger management is to actually take a break and some distance from the situation, in an attempt to regain your control and composure and thus not act in the spur of the moment. Taking a few deep breaths, counting down or engaging in some form of physical activity (e.g. a walk outside, a short run, a dance-it-out little dance with intense music) to allow the emotional arousal and tension to externalize in a non-harmful way can be quite effective.
Alternatively, if you are in the middle of an argument with a loved one and you are very much urged to attack them, an opposite action would be to engage in acts of sympathy, empathy, love and affection instead. How to do that, when you are pissed off with them? It is not easy- therefore just stopping for a moment and giving them a tight hug can be a great start. It can eliminate tension and take you out of the fiery heat of the argument, helping you recharge and perhaps realize that the argument is the enemy of both of you right now, and not each other.
When you are sad, you actually don’t really want to do anything; just curl up and keep feeling sad. Therefore the typical actions of sadness are withdrawal, disconnection, inactivity, isolation. This allows depressive feelings to establish themselves even more, as you sink down into a downward spiral of sadness and despair.
Opposite Actions: Connection / Approach / Action
In the treatment of depression, behavioural activation plays a prominent role, exactly because it counteracts the default responses to low mood.
Therefore, if you feel sad and you wish to employ Opposite Action, then you actually need to stand up and do something.
Would you rather roll yourself with a blanket and watch series, instead of meeting up with your friend? Stand up, dress up and go find them.
Would you rather stay in the corner of the room by yourself when you feel low, instead of reaching out and connecting with others? Challenge yourself and ignite a conversation with someone else that looks like they could use some company.
During an argument, maybe your partner says something that hurts you and you subsequently feel sad. It is a very natural response to cry. Should you suppress your need to cry, by doing Opposite to Emotion Action? Of course not. But you can act differently, by taking some time off of them, let the tears flow, and come back to them unburdened by the high emotional arousal you were feeling some minutes ago.
Would you rather get lazy and doze off on the sofa when you feel at your lowest, instead of cleaning up and tidying up your kitchen? Get up and start from somewhere; this will gradually make you feel better about yourself and increase a sense of accomplishment.
How to do Opposite to Emotion Action?
1. Identify the emotion you are feeling right now
Mindfulness is the very first step.
You first need to be mindful of your emotions, recognize what it is you are feeling exactly, as well as the triggering event (external situation, action of another, internal situation i.e. memory or thought) that precipitated it. After, you need to realize what your emotion urges you to do, and do the opposite.
If you are not very much in touch with your emotions or your triggers, you may want to consider completing the Thought Record exercise.
Becoming self-conscious about how you feel and why does not happen overnight, but it is not difficult to master. In my view, this development of awareness and consciousness is the purest goal of psychotherapy.
The are quite a lot of emotions, some of which you may have difficulty defining. Take a look at the wheel of emotions below.
What is your emotional state right now?
2. Realize what is the Action of this emotion
What does this emotion urge me to do right now?
What do I typically do when I feel like this?
What are you urged to do when you feel angry / anxious / fearful/ sad / guilty / embarrassed etc. ?
As underlined above, the action of each emotion aims to intensify it even further.
3. Examine whether this emotion and/or its intensity fits the situation
Opposite Action can be effective when either the emotion or its intensity is unjustified for the situation at hand.
Perhaps you are completely justified to feel somewhat angry at a specific comment that your partner made, but you find that your emotion is out of proportion to the situation itself, and if you allow yourself to act on it, you may blow up at your partner unjustifiably.
Or it is completely alright if you feel some anxiety in response to meeting your new date, but if your anxiety is crippling you from actually uttering a word when you meet them, it is maladaptive and out of proportion for you.
4. Decide whether you would like to change the intensity of this emotion
Opposite Action is challenging by itself and requires practice, but it will definitely not work unless you are consciously aware that you do want to regulate your emotion.
Do I want to exert control over my emotion?
Do I want to change my emotional state right now?
Do I want to manage and reduce the intensity of the distressing emotion?
If your answer is Yes to these questions, then you should go for Oppposite Action.
In this case, it is time to be a rebel and mentally scream to your emotion I won't do what you tell me!!!
5. Identify what is the opposite action to your emotion and employ it!
After you have established what the emotion urges you to do (Step 1), now it is time to brainstorm about all the opposite actions that you could instead employ. This is perhaps the hardest step, since you need to find the motivation to actually Do Differently!
Is it easy? I won’t lie to you, it is not easy. It requires loads of practice. And it doesn’t always work, since some emotional states are too intense to be able to handle. But it is a skill most definitely worth mastering!
The point is not to invalidate the reality of your emotional state in the moment. Instead, the goal is to transform the emotional experience into one that is more likely to bring out a desirable outcome, or to minimize undesirable outcomes.
Just start practicing, don’t give up at the first disappointment or failure. In time, you will reap the harvest of your efforts by seeing that You can definitely take the power back from your emotions.