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ER 2: Opposite Action

Opposite action is more than a skill. It is a philosophy of life. Like dialectics or radical acceptance or mindfulness, this is a DBT skill that we can learn through exercises, but then it becomes a lifetime practice to apply over and over again. The potency, the fluidity, the nuance, and the subtlety of this skill takes time and practice to fully appreciate.

Opposite action is doing just the opposite of what our impulsive urges or cravings are telling us to do. It is like getting up and going out for a walk into a cold wind when one just wants relax at home where it is quiet and cozy and warm. Opposite action is not easy, so we also want to accompany ourselves with mindfulness and self-compassion, instead of putting our head down, gritting our teeth, and white-knuckling our way through. We might discover that the cold wind is invigorating and makes us feel alive and happy!

This is a skill to practice before one is totally comfortable with fully experiencing an emotion. It helps us to get more and more comfortable with uncomfortable situations and with feeling what we feel. It is the skill of choice when the intensity of the emotion is not justified by the situation, when the emotion is not helping us to meet our goals in the situation, or when we are avoiding what needs to be done.

The first step is to turn toward the emotion or turn toward our inner experience and ask ourselves what is the action urge that we are feeling. ("What is the urge? What do I feel like doing?") As we enter into the space of urges and cravings we are trying to being mindfully aware of the powerful potential and instinctive energy to do or say something. The more mindful awareness we have of urges and cravings, the greater mental space we have around it. That mental space of pure awareness does not have urges and cravings, but just observes and recognizes...and gives us the space to choose how to act.

For some people the action urge of an emotion is apparent before the emotion is identifiable. Try and see if you notice, for example, is there an URGE or a CRAVING or an IMPULSIVE REACTION.

Basic common urges for each emotion include:

FEAR or ANXIETY - avoid


SADNESS - isolate, rest

SHAME or VULNERABILITY - hide, disconnect

GUILT - apologize, repair

DISGUST - push away, avoid

ENVY - compete, grab, or undermine

JEALOUSY - cling, possess

LOVE - approach, embrace

Observing urges gives us the clarity we need to regulate an emotion. The key is to do opposite action when the emotion is not justified (i.e. there is no real threat) or not effective (it is not helping us reach our goals). The emotion can be totally understandable, but there is no threat to our health or welfare or the emotion does not help us to effectively solve the underlying problem. Opposite action will regulate an unwanted emotion.

When practicing Opposite Action, do it over and over!

What do you do? If your emotion is:

FEAR or ANXIETY, then do what you are afraid of doing, for example, approach instead of avoiding, act now instead of postponing, move toward instead of moving away.

ANGER or FRUSTRATION, then gently avoid or even be kind and genuinely empathic instead of attacking.

SADNESS, then get active, engage in pleasant events, approach, and don't isolate.

SHAME OR VULNERABILITY and if there is no threat of being ridiculed or rejected by others, then stop hiding the behavior and do it over and over again in a group that will not criticize you.

GUILT and if your behavior does not violate your values, then continue the behavior and stop apologizing for it.

DISGUST and if there is no danger of contamination or harm, bring the disgusting item or person very close to you and keep it there, even embracing the person and distracting yourself from disgusting thoughts.

ENVY, then count your blessings and inhibit urges to diminish or take what others have.

JEALOUSY, then when there is no threat to what you possess, lot go of controlling others and share what you have.

LOVE (yes, love can be unjustified, for example, when the person we love does not treat us well), then avoid and block all forms of contact with the person.


Pay attention to your experience.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

Keep a confident posture and voice tone.

Let opposite action do the work! There is no need to suppress the emotion! Do it all the way because only doing it halfway is not a complete opposite and it doesn't work. (Going to a party when you are shy, but not talking to anyone is only halfway. Pretending to be sweet and kind, but thinking, "I can't stand you, you are a jerk" is only halfway.)

Opposite action is a way of life. Attached is a worksheet to follow step-by-step to practice and fill out completely. Let me know how it goes!

Opposite Action to Change Emotions
Download PDF • 54KB

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