For every action there is a reaction, for every mistake there are repercussions, and every emotion has it’s antithesis. Too often we listen to our hearts and end up burned, and too often do our immediate responses to a situation cause more trouble than we had in the first place. A burst of anger, a wave of sadness, or a surge of excitement can string us up like marionettes and and make us dance for them. That is why, in times of doubt, I practice opposite action.
One of the folders in the divider on my desk is labeled “Opposite to action guide”. Inside is a packet of six papers filled front and back with step-by-step instructions for how to curb your ineffective or unhelpful emotional impulses and turn them into something productive.
The concept of opposite action is simple: instead of doing that destructive thing your emotional brain wants you to, instead counteract that by doing something that part of you really doesn’t want to do right now. When you’re experiencing a powerful emotion, stop and examine whether or not it is reasonable, and then determine what it is that emotion wants you to do about it. If your feelings aren’t appropriate for the situation, and/or what that feeling makes you want to do isn’t effective, then do the opposite.
Often , the coping mechanisms we instinctively revert to simply serve to perpetuate the negative emotion. If we are afraid of something, we want to avoid it, and by avoiding it we only increase our fear of it. When we intentionally ignore those instincts and do the thing we least want to do, we are neutralizing the emotion and producing a better result for ourselves.
My handy packet begins with a flow chart that helps you determine when an opposite action is appropriate. First, we have to ask ourselves if the emotion fits the facts of the situation. Is your anxiety or anger justified? Do you have a legitimate, observable reason to be overwhelmed with sadness right now? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Either way, the next question you need to consider is whether or not acting on that emotion would be effective. Would running away, yelling at your coworker, or staying home from a social event to cry and eat ice cream accomplish anything good? If not, then an opposite action would likely be a good approach.
The rest of the packet deals with specific emotions: in what instances they could be considered justified, and if they’re not, what actions you can take to negate your unhelpful action urge. For example, if you are afraid, is there a threat to the life, health, or well-being of you or someone you care about? If so, that fear makes sense, and you should be mindful of it and respond appropriately.
If, however, your fear is not a rational response to a real threat- say you’re afraid to go to a party or to call in sick- then an opposite action can help. Your fear tells you to run away, avoid, and diminish yourself. Instead, confront the task head on. Do the thing you are dreading, be aware of the trigger but remain unflinching, posture up, be confident, and take slow, deep breaths. All these things are exactly what your body doesn’t want you to do, and so they are the exact thing that you should do when your body’s response is illogical.
In total there are nine emotions in my handout that are explored, each with a list of opposite actions to consider taking in the face of their unwanted occurrence. Some of the solutions for anger are to be kind, gently avoid rather than attacking, and to relax and unclench tensed muscles. When you’re feeling unwarranted sadness, it can help to get active, do things that make you feel competent and confident, seek out more pleasant experiences, and try to keep an upbeat tone or maybe a half-smile. Shame can be rendered powerless by sharing your experience with a trusted audience, stopping yourself from apologizing where it is unneeded, keeping your head held high and your voice steady, and maintaining eye contact.
If this all sounds hard, that’s because it is. It is by no means easy to defy your own wishes and behave in a way that is completely counterintuitive to how you feel. But the more you practice opposite actions the more you will notice positive outcomes from situations that previously made you feel helpless or out of control.
Personally, this little trick has helped me most with my anxiety and depression. I used to be the supreme monarch of avoidance and procrastination; when I was afraid or didn’t feel up to doing something, it wouldn’t get done. Now, however, I can often kick my anxiety to the curb by diving head first into the pool of my fears and resisting the urge to falter or look back. I combat my melancholy and inactivity by setting goals for myself that keep me off the couch and engaged with the world around me.
The best thing we can do for ourselves is to take control of our own actions, and learn to recognize when what we are doing isn’t working. Life is about adapting to circumstances in order to overcome them. When we try, try again and get no results, it may be time to look in the opposite direction and take the road less traveled. Otherwise, how can we expect to get anywhere we haven’t already been?
Note: The packet I mention in this post is a very real and very useful tool of mine. If anyone would like a copy of it, I would be more than happy to share.