May 11 – Opposite Action

Written by Karyn Hall

May 11, 2020

You know those days that are so difficult? You wake up in the morning and don’t want to talk with anyone. You don’t answer the phone. You don’t have any food, don’t feel like going to the grocery store, so you don’t go. You just can’t make yourself. You don’t feel like networking so you cancel the work luncheon. You talk gruffly to your friends and co-workers. Perhaps you even justify your actions, or attempt to, by saying, “I’m just in a bad mood.” But when you check the facts, your wise mind says there really isn’t any reason for the way you feel.

You push people away while upset and then regret doing so. Your emotions lead to actions that in the moment seem like exactly what you need and even must do, but really aren’t effective or what you want in the long run. Your behavior is dependent on your mood and that leads to a roller coaster.

The problem is that the more you act according to how you feel, the stronger the feeling becomes. If you isolate in your room because you are feeling depressed, then your depression is likely to increase. If you avoid people because you are anxious, then your anxiety will increase. If you are feeling frustrated and talk in a gruff manner, then your frustration will probably grow. But just telling yourself not to be so emotional won’t work.

Emotions and actions are naturally paired. If you feel fear you have the urge to run. If you are angry you have the urge to attack. These urges can be very strong.

Actions work like a feedback system to the brain to confirm the emotion. For example, acting consistent with depression (such as withdrawing, staying in bed) increases the intensity of the depression.

When you recognize the feeling you are having, such as depression, and the action that naturally follows, such as withdrawal, you have an opportunity to change your emotion by acting in a different way. When you act in ways that are opposite to what you are feeling, the feedback to the brain does not confirm the emotion and you can ease the emotion, even change the way you are feeling (Linehan, 1993). Persistence is key here though. Keep doing it over and over.

William James, often referred to as the father of American psychology, said, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”

To act opposite to depression, you would become more active and interact with others. To act opposite of anxiety, you would do what scares you. Going through the motions is a start, but to be truly effective with acting opposite to emotion, you must throw yourself into it whole-heartedly. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) terms, you would “participate fully” in acting opposite to your emotion.

Emotion Action Urge Opposite Action
Sad Isolate, withdraw figure out what is wrong Socialize, get active, go out of house
Shame Hide Hold head up, make eye contact, don’t hide
Guilt Apologize, Continue behavior Stop apologizing
Angry Attack Wish well, Gently walk away
Jealousy Control others, not share, protect Share with others
Envy Reduce what others have Count your own blessings
Fear Run away, avoid Approach
Frustrated Give up Persevere, try even harder


For example, if you decide to act opposite by going to the grocery store when you want to stay in bed, you would do so by fully concentrating on the groceries you are buying and the people you interact with, rather than wishing you had never left your house. When those thoughts come, which they probably will, notice them and gently bring your focus back to what you are doing. Stay mindful of the world outside. Focus fully on what you are doing.

Opposite-to-Emotion Action with Yourself
Sometimes the action that comes naturally with depression or disappointment or sadness is to emotionally berate yourself. You may ruminate over and over on your failures or your worthlessness.

Opposite action would be to wholeheartedly treat yourself with loving-kindness. Practicing a loving-kindness meditation can make a difference if you say it with meaning and acceptance. In addition to helping change your mood, the benefit for those who tend to dislike themselves is that you may change your view. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

Live a skill-full life. Karyn Hall, Ph.D., May 11, 2020

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