mental health Psychology

Understanding Opposite Action

Each emotion we experience comes with a specific action urge. If we are feeling sadness or shame, we might naturally want to avoid or isolate. If we are experiencing paranoia, we might react to others with suspicion and mistrust. If we are feeling anger, we might suppress the urge to break something, or hurt someone with our words. All emotions activate us to respond in some way. Just noticing the accompanying action urge and how it is felt in the body can give us clues as to what we are feeling.

Opposite Action is a DBT skill best used when the emotions don’t fit the facts. It can help to deal with distressing emotions by setting into motion an action that is helpful, not harmful. It allows us to intervene between an emotion and an action urge, so that our distress gradually decreases.

This skill requires practice, but it cultivates self-awareness. It relies on us identifying the emotion, then making an assessment of whether the accompanying action urge fits the situation. It is about attending to the space that exists between the emotion and the action urge. By engaging this thought process before acting upon an emotion, it is possible to choose an action that is opposite to what the ‘natural’ response would be. It involves channeling your inner rebel by defying what your urges expect of you.

Sometimes our practice of Opposite Action is not so obvious. When we wake up to an alarm in the morning and choose to rise, rather than hit ‘snooze’ – this is Opposite Action. So is choosing to go for a run even when we feel sluggish. Opposite Action can help us to face situations we might otherwise avoid. Feeling fear about an upcoming job interview is perfectly natural, but if this fear overwhelms us it can get in the way of what we want. Because the situation is not actually unsafe, it makes sense to pay less attention to that fear.

The kinds of situations in which it is appropriate to use this skill are ones in which the emotions might not be realistic to the situation. If you are in doubt, consider whether the emotions are ones you want to challenge or change. There are benefits to acting opposite to how we are feeling in the moment. We avoid the consequences of actions that would otherwise escalate the situation, and we begin to make changes to the way we feel.

There are times when this is not the best thing to do. Consider a time when you felt shame because you’d done something contrary to your values. In this case you would do your best to repair the situation and move on. The emotion fits the situation, so this is not a situation where you would want to practice Opposite Action.

Opposite Action is not about suppressing feelings. You are not denying your feelings, but you are giving yourself a chance to change how you feel for the better. Acting opposite creates an interruption that causes our feelings to change course. You are acting against the urge, not the feeling. The result will be a gradual change in our emotions. We decrease negative feelings by putting something positive in their place.

I have found that accepting the reality of my feelings as they are, without judgement or resistance, is the first step towards coping with strong emotions. All feelings are valid. But the knowledge that our feelings can and do change isn’t always apparent. It can be hard trusting this skill. We may need to look for support. Sometimes it is putting too much pressure on ourselves not to surrender to the situation or do whatever it is we need to do to cope. And there is no harm in that either. Discerning what action is needed (or not needed) in the moment is one way of building self-trust. But when we are ready, committing to Opposite Action can make all the difference.

Switching It Up

The following is taken from DBT Tools.

Anger: gets us ready to attack / it activates us to attack or defend.

Opposite: show kindness / concern or walk away.

Shame: gets us ready to hide. It activates us to isolate.

Opposite: raise your head up, make eye contact, shoulders back.

Fear: gets us ready to run or hide. It activates us to escape danger.

Opposite: go towards, stay involved in it, build courage.

Depression: gets us ready to be inactive. It activates us to avoid contact.

Opposite: get active.

Disgust: gets us ready to reject or distance ourselves. It activates us to avoid.

Opposite: push through and get through the situation.

Guilt: gets us ready to repair violations. It activates us to seek forgiveness.

Opposite: apologise and mean what we say.


  1. If we want an emotion to stick around or increase, continue to do the action as above.
  2. If we want an emotion to go away or become less comfortable, do the opposite action.
  3. If you want this skill to work, you must use opposite action all the way and believe that it will work.
Image: Overlapping Perspectives on Dora Maar, Institut Francais
mental health Psychology

Coping with Identity Issues

We can all change our behaviour to fit in with other people. This is how we as humans seek acceptance and make connections. But for those of us whose mental health affects our sense of self, this becomes more about a desire to fit in. It can be a real struggle to know who we are and because of this we struggle with knowing how to behave.

If you struggle with identity issues or an unstable self-image, you might behave in ways that don’t align with your values. It might look like you are constantly changing to fit the situation or the people you are with. This adds even more confusion to this sense of knowing who you are. Not knowing how to act around others can make even the most typical of interpersonal situations feel very anxiety provoking.

1. Define your values

Your values are the guiding principles to live your life by. Paying attention to your values will help you to figure out how to act and how to prioritise. When you have a clearer idea of your values it becomes easier to see when your behaviour crosses these standards, as this will often lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Defining your values can lead to more confidence about going with what feels right for you. Try to notice to what extent your behaviour lives up to your values.

2. Identify your goals

When you are not sure how to act, ask yourself “What is my goal?” Then consider how much your behaviour matches up with that goal. Think about your long and short-term goals for relationships as well as your life. Your goals are your action steps to ensure you live by your values. It can be really helpful, before you take on a new commitment, to examine whether you are doing this because it is the right action for you, based on your values, or whether you are doing this because you want approval from others. If you have doubts, revisit your values.

3. Let go of seeking approval from others

Pay attention to when you may be looking for approval from others. Then practice letting go of seeking reassurance. You need to approve your own behaviour. Notice when your behaviour comes mainly from wanting someone to say that you fit in or did the right thing. Before deciding what action to take in any given situation, check in with yourself to see if your choice is consistent with your values.

4. Ground yourself

When you are feeling anxious or swept up in social situations, the urge to take on other people’s behaviour can be very intense. This is why it is important to ground yourself so that you can connect with your own values and goals. Grounding techniques involve paying attention to the present moment and activate the senses. My suggestions include doing a three minute breathing space, chewing a piece of gum or eating something mindfully (like a mint or boiled sweet), applying a sweet smelling hand cream and trying to identify as many sounds as you can.

5. Plan ahead

This is known as the DBT skill ‘cope ahead’. When you notice anxiety about how to act, come up with a plan beforehand for how you’d like the interaction to go. Remind yourself of your goals and values and write down how you’d like to behave. Try to anticipate what behaviours you might engage in that cross your values and go against your goals. What barriers that might get in the way? Make a commitment to stick to this plan. If in the moment you don’t for whatever reason, forgive yourself and move on. Reflect on the situation with self-compassion.

6. Recognise your strengths

Being flexible in different environments and social situations is a great quality. But it requires balance and achieving balance means acquiring skills. This takes some practice. Try not to give yourself a hard time when you get it wrong. One way of building a more stable self-image is to reflect on your strengths. Ask people who know you to name three things you are good at (and believe what they tell you!). Or, if that’s too scary, pay attention to positive feedback when you receive it.


Coping with BPD: DBT and CBT skills to soothe the symptoms of borderline personality disorder by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen (2015).

Image: Chameleon by Bryston Riches.