Opposite action is a new way of thinking about what to do when you’re feeling
– anxiety, or
The ways people habitually respond to these emotions often make their problems worse in the long run
– hiding, lying, or refusing to acknowledge someone else’s valid point when you’re feeling shame,
– avoiding when you’re anxious
– withdrawing when you’re sad, or
– attacking/defending/or withdrawing when you’re angry.
Suggestions of opposite actions
When you feel angry
try expressing sympathy or empathy
Use, for example, when you’ve had to wait for a long time or when you’re angry at your child.
The goal of this isn’t to benefit the other person. The idea is that you’ll feel better. Often you’ll also improve the situation compared with what the consequences would’ve been if you’d reacted to feeling angry by attacking, defending, or withdrawing.
Expressing empathy or sympathy often works astoundingly well for reducing how angry you feel.
Alternatively, try being extra nice when you’re feeling angry.
When you’re feeling shame/guilt/embarrassment
People usually avoid talking much about things they feel a sense of shame about. For example, that they sometimes hate their child, their struggles with weight, failing an exam.
Instead of avoiding, try talking to others who might’ve had similar experiences. Ask people about what their experience was and how they coped. Obviously use your judgment about when/how to apply this. The goal is not so much about getting tips from other people (although this can be a side benefit). Rather the main purpose is to reduce your shame and correspondingly your need to avoid.
Talking with your partner about topics you feel ashamed about can be important too (e.g. talking together about how you no longer have sex and your ideas for turning that around).
If someone is accusing you of something and they have a valid or partially valid point, acknowledge what’s valid about what they’re saying rather than being defensive (additional tip for couples about how to use this to diffuse arguments).
When you’re feeling anxious
Instead of trying to block out or distract yourself from the anxious thoughts, takes some steps toward overcoming what you feel anxious about.
For example, if you feel anxious about starting dating after divorce, then a step in the direction of this would be, as above, to talk to friends who have been through this process about what their experience was like.
It often helps overcome avoidance patterns if you do the thing you’re afraid of repeatedly. After doing something repeatedly, you might still feel some anxiety about it but it won’t be so strong you need to avoid that thing in the future.
(Example – making requests of other people when the answer might be No. )
When you’re feeling sad / when something has gone wrong
People’s natural tendency when they’re feeling sad is usually to withdraw, retreat, slow down etc.
There’s an element of this that’s often helpful. For example, if you have something go wrong at work, in a relationship, or in your studies, then you step back and take some time to think about your next move.
An opposite action that can help lift your sadness is to do something that leaves you feeling confident and competent, gives you the sense that you’re moving in your valued life directions, and/or feels like you’ve achieved something worthwhile.
Doing something that’s generous and caring towards others can help. For example, offering help to someone that needs it at work.
Personal example, if I feel like I’ve had a frustrating or unproductive day, I often write a blog post because I can get it finished, published, and then its out there permanently on the internet to help people. It means that even on the most unproductive day, I’ve still achieved something productive!
Remember that when you’re feeling strong emotions you’re likely to be feeling a mixture of different emotions rather than only one type of emotion.
Try to identify all of the emotions you’re feeling rather than only the strongest emotions. Help for identifying and changing your emotions here – Model of emotions
The best opposite action response in a particular situation may be for one of the other emotions you’re feeling rather than whatever emotion you’re feeling most strongly.
Where other psychology PhDs who read this blog can find more information
I’ve added lots of my own thoughts and examples but adapted my explanation of this technique from a book called “Skills Training Manual for Borderline Personality Disorder”. I use lots of handouts from this book for clients with a variety of problems (the information is far more widely applicable than only clients with Borderline Personality Disorder). I consider this book an essential resource for psychology PhDs’ bookshelves.
New Zealand link – Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder (Diagnosis & Treatment of Mental Disorders S.)
International link – Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder