Opposite Action

Feb 12, 2024

Elisa Pompeo

Be honest – have you ever felt overwhelmed with a task, so much so that you put it off for days, or weeks, or even months? Lately, I have been thinking about avoidance and its effect on people.

When we avoid something, such as doing our laundry, cleaning the dishes, or generally taking care of ourselves and our commitments, we give ourselves temporary relief. And when I say temporary, I mean it. Later on, the task feels even more overwhelming than it did when we first noticed it. What’s the common denominator here? Emotions. 

In DBT we teach a skill called Opposite Action as part of our Emotion Regulation module. Opposite Action is a skill that helps us to make effective changes by activating the opposite of our current mood-dependent urges. I love using this skill when I “feel stuck.” One example is when the emotion name is anxiety and the ineffective urge is to avoid. 

Opposite Action asks us to face avoidance by identify it as an action urge in response to fear and/or anxiety. It then asks us to question, “Is my urge to avoid going to help me reach my long-term goal and be effective?” If the answer is “no,” we do the opposite and we approach instead of avoid. Our bodies and minds may be sending us the message that we should keep away from the thing we are putting off. This is why DBT teaches us to act opposite fully, meaning all the way! This means applying the skill using your mind, body and soul, such as the statement “fake it till you make it.” This will interrupt the pattern of mood-dependent behavior and make room for new neural pathways to develop.

For some it may be more difficult to use Opposite Action with emotions like sadness and fear. Sadness and fear are two emotions that often urge us to act in ways that keep us feeling stuck. When we feel depressed, we may have urges to isolate, hide, stay still and essentially do nothing. 

In this case, we can use Opposite Action to break down our task into small, bite-sized pieces, which will make it easier to start. The first step is always the hardest. Imagine getting out of bed as your task: Opening your eyes, sitting up, taking the covers off of you, shifting your body to the side of the bed, dangling your feet off the side of the bed, putting your feet on the ground, and standing up! Sometimes we may notice judgmental thoughts trying to sabotage us from using Opposite Action, such as “This is stupid” or “This should be easy.” Remind yourself that little steps lead to big steps. 

Using Opposite Action can make a big difference in our daily lives. Remember to thoroughly identify what emotion you are experiencing, what it is urging you to do, and if that action will be effective. If it is not effective, whole-heartedly throw yourself in the other direction! I highly recommend trying this in the face of ineffective urges.  As one of my therapist friends says to me, “Something is better than nothing! You can do it!”