Opposite Action: using negative emotional prompts for positive outcomes

Updated Sep 19 2018
This is me dancing instead of scrolling.

As with many good ideas, this one came when I was trying to give someone else advice. A friend of mine was asking me about the post-surgical physical therapy I did a couple years ago, and so I told her all about dead bugs.

"Cool," she said. "So how often should I do them?"

"Whenever you catch yourself feeling a wave of angry and resentful," I joked. "Use that as your prompt to drop onto the floor like a dead bug."

And then a little lightbulb went off in my head and I was like — holy shit, what if *I* actually did that!? Maybe not with dead bugs and resentment, but with jumping jacks and boredom?!

We all have so many things we know we SHOULD do, but ug it's so hard to make the time to do new things… especially when we're all so busy being stressed out, restlessly bored, vaguely miserable, generally unhappy, dealing with floating rage, or whatever your personal favorite miserable brain loop is. I mean, who has time to move my body, when I'm so busy sitting here scrolling social media, feeling stressed out about the news?! I mean, who has time to do something positive and beneficial to me, when I'm here drowning in FOMO looking at my phone thinking about how everyone else's life is better than mine? Like, who has the time to work on that stuff I know would probably improve my life, when I'm so busy over here being fucking miserable!?

What's that called?

I've been trying this method on myself for a while now (more about that later!), and last week on @offbeatbride's Insta Stories (my happy place) I finally decided to ask if anyone knew what this method was called — it has to have a name! I can't be the first person to have tried this concept of using a negative or compulsive emotional state as a prompt to do something positive or beneficial.

"That's called Opposite Action," a follower named Kylie wrote me within an hour. "It's part of Dialectic Behavior Therapy."

Ok, now we're talking. Finally I had a phrase! I could start researching! And oh… you know I did some researching:

So first, it looks like Dialectic Behavior Therapy was originally developed for folks dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder. I liked this description: "One of the main ideas underlying DBT is that while you may not be responsible for all of the events that have occurred to create the current problem you are facing (however severe), you are nonetheless responsible for effectively solving the problem."

As part of DBT, Opposite Action was developed as an emotional regulation technique of acknowledging an overwhelming emotion and then transforming it into something more desirable. You don't deny the emotion, but instead of doing something negative with it, you can transform the emotion into something more beneficial.

I liked this description of Opposite Action:

How to do Opposite Action:

  1. Use Mindfulness to notice the emotion, the action urge (and, if possible, the prompting event and the interpretations of the prompting event).
  2. Ask yourself, is this emotion justified or unjustified?
  3. Don’t suppress the emotion, when we suppress emotions, they just get bigger. Emotions are not the problem – urges and/or intensity are the problems.
  4. Ask yourself, if the emotion is justified, if the intensity of the emotion is justified or helpful. If the emotion is not justified or the intensity of the emotion is not helpful:
  5. Do the opposite of the emotional urge.
  6. Do all the way Opposite Action.

And then I found this awesome list of examples of Opposite Actions: 10 Practical Examples of Opposite Action, and it all started to feel like it was making sense!

Opposite Action example 1: dancing instead of scrolling

Ok, so how about looking at two ways I'm using Opposite Action-esque method in my own life.

Stating the obvious here: my biggest compulsion is social media, and I hit it the hardest when I'm bored and restless. Life feels meaningless and empty? Grab my phone (HA! As if it's ever out of my hand? Ug) and start scrolling… then find myself an hour later, with life feeling even MORE meaningless and empty. Good work, Stallings.

I decided to try seeing if I could catch myself hitting the social media rat lever, and consciously make the choice to do something different. What if I used that boredom and restlessness as a reminder that I needed some real world stimulation? What if instead of scrolling, I put on headphones and danced around the room for a song?

First it was hard to have the awareness to even catch myself doing scrolling — the misery loop is so mindless that I'm not even conscious of it happening. But after catching myself a few times and dancing around the room for a few minutes, it became easier to notice. And, better yet — instead of life feeling even more meaningless and empty, I had a sense of movement and warmth, joy and shift.

It's not rocket science: choosing to dance feels better than mindless scrolling. The action becomes its own reward.

I started trying this method out with other prompts and actions too, and every time… the action became its own reward. It's not like, "Oh, I do X instead of Y because I should"… it's "I do X instead of Y because it feels better." The pleasure becomes its own reward system. The pleasure becomes its own carrot danging on a string — no stick necessary. I don't dance instead of scroll because I SHOULD, now I dance instead of scroll because IT FEELS BETTER.

Opposite Action example 2: self-care instead of compulsive communication

Here's another example of how I've been using this in my personal life, and warning: this gets deep into both therapy talk so if that's not your jam, pull your emergency escape cord now cuz here we go.

Y'all know I've been reading a lot about how attachment issues play out in adult relationships? One of the things us anxious attachment types deal with is a hypervigilant attachment system. For me, the symptom of hypervigilance is a physical stab in my chest. It's an unbearable sensation, usually triggered by a communication snafu that sends me into a panicked tailspin of fear and full-frontal freak-out.

Historically speaking, I've dealt with this sensation by doing what many anxious attachment types do: desperate compulsive communication. I've never been the "leave 10 increasingly-unhinged voicemails" kind of person, or even the "send 20 texts that culminate in 'fuck off you clearly hate me!!!'" kind of person… but let's just say I understand the emotional sensation that causes people to do those things.

Me, I'm more of a "send a couple slightly overbearing texts and then sit clutching my phone, sweating and freaking out refreshing the screen compulsively" kind of person, y'know?

The last time one of these hypervigilant anxiety pangs hit me, I decided to try something different: instead of desperately seeking communication and care from someone else, what if I used the sensation as a prompt reminding me that what I really needed was to take care of myself?

I turned my phone off (…all the way off), and then did what I'd do if my kid was having a grand mal meltdown: I fed myself, bathed myself, tucked myself into bed, and then talked gently to myself. (Yes, outloud. You guys, I have gone so far off the "zero fucks to give" rails that I can't be fucked to apologize for how weird it's gotten over here.)

I'm not going to say I magically felt super awesome… but the panic was definitely less than it would have been. This makes sense, right? Because guess what compulsively sending unanswered texts does? CAUSE MORE PANIC! It's a loop, yo. So mostly, by choosing an opposite action, I avoided making the situation worse for myself. My self-care did manage to calm me down. (Apparently emotional regulation is a thing you can do for yourself?! Who knew!)

So now I have that in my toolkit: if my attachment system gets triggered, I do the opposite action of what I want to do. I want desperately to communicate and externalize and find a solution outside myself… and instead I focus on self-care and self-nurturing and finding a solution inside myself.

One disclaimer, one concern, and one question

It hopefully goes without saying that I'm not an expert here. I'm some lady with a BA in Sociology from a state school who wrote a book about weddings in the '00s — I'm not a therapist, or an academic, or even much of a researcher. If you're dealing with significant mental health challenges, you need to talk to a professional — not take advice from some rando on the internet like me.  If the concept of Opposite Action appeals to you, and you're dealing with emotional regulation challenges that affect your ability to function in daily life, you need to google dialectic behavior therapists in your area, and start getting personal help.

Also, I'm not totally sure about the idea of the action being opposite. I mean, is dancing really the opposite of social media scrolling? I guess I do get that I see one action as unproductive (scrolling) and the other as productive (dancing), and I guess that is opposite… so maybe it makes sense? I'm just a little leery of any behavior training that feels like flooding. I tried that on myself once after my divorce and fucked myself up. (My therapist said, "Wait, are you telling me you're doing self-administered flooding behavior conditioning on yourself, while in a state of trauma from an abrupt divorce!? STOP IT.") Some of these examples here I'm a little dubious about. Is public speaking really the best cure for social anxiety?

Ok, so I'm NOT an expert, and I see that Opposite Action has its limitations… but for those of you who, like me, might just be dealing with some gentle emotional traumas (and really, I feel like that's most of America right now — UG!), I'd love to hear the ways in which you feel like you could use Opposite Action to transmute your compulsive negative emotional behaviors into positive, proactive, or at least less destructive behaviors.

  1. I'm loving all the writing/social media-ing you're doing around topics like this lately!! It's refreshing to read something like this… as I sit overly attached to my phone, reading blogs and endlessly scrolling social media in that battle against a certain stay-at-home-parent ennui. But really, I totally appreciate the many actionable ideas for self-care that have been coming out of OBH over the last few months. Good for the soul and the crazy social climate we live in.

    • If my experiences with publishing Offbeat Mama / Offbeat Families are any indication, social media + stay at home parenting is NOT a great combo for feeling good about yourself. I'm not sure what happens, but the isolation + the FOMO + the endless scrolling + the kids + ???? = a lot of emotional instability and bad feelings for a LOT of people. That ennui is NOT just you, and I don't think social media is the answer.

      …I say, in a blog comment. As a person who uses social media a lot. #hypocrit

  2. For what it is worth, there are studies which show that talking to yourself can be really beneficial — look up SciShow on YouTube for a cool, short, research based explanation if you want 🙂

    One thing that might potentially make your talking to yourself, self-soothing technique more effective is talking in third person. Apparently "you're going to be okay, [name]. You are safe, [name]" works better than "I'm okay, I'm safe."

    (Also I 100% do this as part of my own self-soothing. I've started saying goodnight and "I love you" to myself before bed like I would a partner or child. It's great!)

    • Ever since I was a little kid, I have talked to myself, but I would have conversations with a fictional character, or play out possible conversations with real people. Sometimes, it played out that two characters were having a conversation, and I was just there. It was kind of like my own personal Socratic dialogue. I can't tell you how many problems I worked out using this method. It was a great way to organize and understand the thoughts in my head!

    • Oooh this is a great idea: thank you! I start to get super anxious every single night — and, years ago, I realized I need to treat myself like a three year old at night, but maybe I also need to talk to myself like a three year old too! (That is, like a kind, gentle, loving person would talk to a three year old….)

    • This article came at the perfect time for me. I've been struggling with screen/smartphone/social media overuse and it's been hard to cut back. I recognize that so much of what I'm unhappy about can be changed if I were to put my phone down and work to achieve my goals. I've been trying to think up ways to hack my laziness and the constant instinct to reach for my phone.

      With this new year and resolutions and shit I've resolved to work on myself as in: give zero fucks about anyone else's opinion (huge considering my crippling social anxiety), and, acknowledge, accept and alter my bad habits transforming them into healing habits.

      I kind of just threw this thought together a few weeks ago- "hey, if I catch myself scrolling Instagram on my phone with no purpose get up and clean something instead!"
      Sounded like a great cleaning hack in theory but it was not a good enough incentive to get off my phone. It only led to more procrastination. Thanks to your opposite action info I know what to research and I have a better idea of how I can change this for myself.

      I've been skirting around the main issue- a lack of fulfillment, no sense of purpose and not being contentment with my life. It's Largely due to my personal bad habits, avoidance of any hard work that would actually make a difference because it's hard and it's scary and I'm not fond of change and i have a fear of failure, a need to be perfect and all that jazz. It's so much easier to plug into something- social media, tv, movies, news, gaming etc, as a distraction from the reality of life, and I kind of feel that we're all being pushed into it to keep us distracted and too busy/lazy to change. I have this horrible feeling that I've been doped up on meaningless superficial bullshit for so long that I became desensitized to what's going on around me – the national politics, local politics, world economy etc…

      But then it gets overwhelming again. I look up from my Instagram feed and realize the world is going to shit around me, i'm not where I wanted to be with my life and I kind of just want to go back to looking at twerking vids, puns, funny pet fails and parenting memes.

      My hope is that a couple minutes of opposite action will spur me into a positive forward momentum so that I can steadily work toward my goals instead of falling back into a different form of time suck. As a stay at home mom I got stuck in this cycle of procrastinating, then doing what needs to be done in a mad frenzy and stopping there because I didn't have the time, energy or desire to do more. That left zero time for self care, self fulfillment etc. Anyway, I'm hoping this strategy will be another tool for success in my new year, new productive and woke me.

      As always, I appreciate your rando internet lady knowledge and the way it seems to coincide with my own musings and point me into the direction I've been looking for.

      • *fist bump*

        One of the things that's been helpful for me to remember with this kind of anxious/compulsive behavior is that it's NOT just some personal failing of mine. Smartphones and information overload are a major cultural issue right now. We're ALL suffering and caught in compulsive loops — I wish I could find the article I read about how Americans from all political parties are struggling with anxiety and fear and information overload. We're in a tough time, with new technology, AND we're all human, and we're all suffering.

        Knowing I'm not alone in the struggle makes me feel less self-loathing. Like, we're ALL struggling, it's not just me being a failure. Great. So now what can we do about it?

        Generally speaking, putting down our phones is a good place to start… but you're right that picking what to do instead is a critical piece of the pie! For me, it had to be something that ultimately DID make me feel good, so that the reward was built in.

        Also: 10min/day of meditation with Headspace saved my ass. Worth considering that as an option as well?

  3. Just a tip: DBT isn't always for everyone, there are lots of times that CBT or even REBT therapy/therapists are more appropriate, depending on the person and situation. 🙂 There's definitely overlap between those three, but there's some pretty major differences as well.

    • Thank you for saying this! My big concern with writing this is wanting to make sure I acknowledge that I am NOT qualified to advise anyone on their mental health, or treatment options.

      My intent is to share my experiences, in the hope that maybe other folks see parallels to their own… but I'm terrified of inadvertently doing harm or causing more pain for anyone who's suffering! So thank you again for sharing this perspective.

      • I totally hear that about not wanting to inadvertently harm or cause more issues for other peeps. I just knew that until I started therapy, I had no clue that there were different theories and modalities. The first time someone recommended DBT to me, I did some googling and thought they were telling me they thought I had borderline personality disorder. (They totally weren't, but that's how my brain parsed what they were saying.)

        I forgot to mention, I'm really glad you posted this, too. I've heard of things like opposite action before, but I've never heard it actually called that, which makes it easier to research and read about!

  4. Ariel, I just have to say thank you. I love reading this kind of stuff and feel refreshed and inspired. I love the direction this site is going, as I’m in the midst of my own shit and I love reading stuff that talks about how to deal with … shit. I got here for the weddings, but stayed for the real life emotional stuff. Also: can not wait to read your book.

    • UG. My book. The question becomes how long I wait for traditional publishers to consider it, verses just getting impatient and self publishing it because I want it out there before 2020. I don't know yet!

  5. I feel like the 2 crack pipe jokes take away from the overall value of this piece. This isn't a post about addiction or recovery. It's not a cute anecdote about your recreational drug use. Its a throw away line that pokes fun at substance abuse. It does a disservice to the readers who deal with addiction and to the overall importance of the topic I think you are trying to cover here.

    • Great point, Keren. I've removed both references. It's not cool to make light of substance abuse and addiction.

      That said, I've been reading a lot of research about how social media applications have been designed very specifically to give users small hits of dopamine… so while I agree that it was inappropriate for me to make jokes about crack, I do think it's fair to speak of social media and smart phone use in terms of addiction.

      This is all to say: thanks for the flag, and the opportunity to clarify my thoughts!

      • Thank you.

        I may be missing something but the overall point of this piece wasn't smart phone addiction. Technology and addiction is something that needs to be more openly discussed. And if their is ever a post that directly addresses this topic I would probably be the first to share.

  6. This is tremendously helpful, as many of your recent posts. I've been working with a my therapist about social media addiction, general lack of purpose or direction, deep ennui – all in a vicious circle, otherwise where's the fun?
    I sometimes wish I could commit social media suicide and write off all my accounts, but I'm building a small brand that relies on SM to get out there (as if I was purposefully tying myself up online – I wouldn't do that, eh?). Compulsion to check my stats or mindlessly scroll away is a plague. I often long for a screen-free life and my theoretical happy place is somewhere off the grid, Little House on the Prairie-style.
    My therapist suggested practicing mindfulness, which is still hard. Finding something that can quickly restore positivity instead of scrolling seems somehow more in my reach. Thanks a lot Ariel.

    • My therapist said, "If you do nothing else, please practice mindfulness, five minutes a day, preferably when you first wake up."

      It's ridiculous how hard that is. I'm sure someone smarter than me could explain why it's so hard to just sit and be still and quiet for five minutes in the morning but I never manage it, despite feeling pretty confident it would be beneficial.

      • It could be hard because we're raised in a culture deeply enmeshed in the idea that productivity is a reflection of our inherent goodness. (I'm assuming you're based in the US). Sitting still, being still in the mind, feels not only difficult but inherently wrong. Because that good ol' Puritan ideal that idle hands (and minds) are the devil's work, even if you aren't religious or that style of religious, is built into our infrastructure- how our primary schools run, how most workplaces run, how we conceive of time, etc. You aren't weak, or just having to break a bad habit- practicing mindfulness is a revolutionary act.

      • I do my meditation right when I get up. I literally don't even get out of bed – I just prop my pillow behind me, sit up, and do some alternate-nostril breathing (Google if unfamiliar – super easy and helps wake me up/energize and balance me). Then I meditate, either using a mantra (helps focus the mind) or I focus on feeling the sensation of my breath coming in and out of my body (Vipassana meditation).

        There are so many techniques out there – just 'sitting quietly' without any kind of technique can be really hard. Try out different techniques.

        Truly, I think not even getting out of bed to meditate is what made consistency possible for me. Give it a whirl.

  7. I read an article about the research on smart phones and depression and basically doing ANYthing else is better. So sometimes I just watch TV when I have that scrolling compulsion—it’s totally not “good” for me, but it is better for me! I sometimes actually feel happier after TV also because I watch some funny shit, and laughter is the best medicine. Other still-screen alternatives are Duolingo (app to learn Spanish) and coming to read Offbeat. Better than scrolling! I like the dancing…gonna have to try that…

  8. I didn't catch this post on FB (because FB's favorite thing is not showing me things I actually want to see) so I'm so glad I'm subscribed to the e-mail newsletter because I needed this post. The dead bug exercise is exactly what I've been looking for and the idea of dropping and doing it whenever I feel [whatever unpleasant emotion] rather than trying to work it into an already packed day. Such a simple idea but it took someone else saying it for me to see how brilliant it is. Thank you!

    • Yeah, "making time" to do something good can feel so daunting… for me, when I was able to reframe it as doing something good to escape something awful, suddenly it felt like a relief. Oh, you mean I GET to do this instead of sitting there feeling terrible!? AWESOME!

  9. I think when it's a physically engaging activity (dance, taking a walk, etc) it's therapeutic because you're moving. Your body has something else entirely to focus on, and it's own chemical response (to combat, perhaps, the flood of cortisol from stress/fear). I don't know if the intentional choice makes a difference, but I try to take a walk when I'm in a lather (which is usually at work, so sadly I cannot dance) and it seems to lessen that self-enforcing cycle you mentioned. I'll have to try without the physical stimulus (like watching videos of cats, or ASMR vids when stressed out, as an alternative to thinking about how stressed out I am).

  10. Glen Ivy (pricey day spa) has always been my happy place and I hord all gift cards until I REALLY need a pick me up. A good portion of time spent there was in the sauna just chillaxing. No goals, entertainment or deep thinking. Just sweating.

    The past year has been pretty “challenging” and in the interest of getting back into our own home/saving money and providing a better example to the spawn I quit smoking. Every time I wanted a cigarette I’d head to the gym and go in the sauna. After a week I felt like a dried up lizard. Yes, I hydrated. Sometimes I was there 5 times a day and it gradually tapered off. In the past 4 months I’ve saved $500 after paying for the gym membership. The sauna is still a happy place and since it was more positive replacement than pleasure removal I wasn’t a total bitch throughout the detox. The family will vouch for that too. Win-win!

  11. I love this. The second example chimed with a realisation I had recently about my anxiety, that when I’m in the throes of a big spike, it almost always turns out that somewhere along the line I forgot to comfort or be kind to myself about something, usually a reaction that I had. That I’m looking outside myself for the thing I didn’t give myself when something external caused me to feel sad/scared/angry/other negative emotion.

    FB is sooo bad in those moments, it’s like Russian roulette, will it be a lovely pic of friends baby or another guilt inducing petition/news article/rant? Having forgotten to soothe myself, the negative emotion is still there, the need is still there vibrating away and I begin to get annoyed at myself for being anxious and not seeming to be able to stop it.

    What seems to be working better for me now I have had this realisation, is, when that anxiety comes on, just stopping and soothing without needing to know why, digging out that missed step and retracing what happened is work for later when I can think again.

    It’s exactly as you say, it’s what you would do with a tired child who needs to go to bed, you don’t try and make them understand, you just do what they need whatever fuss they make.

    I think though maybe it’s not so much about winkling out the one perfect opposite action to what you are feeling (could see myself getting caught in a loop of not being sure if a given action really is the one perfect opposite one), it’s just acknowledging that that the way out is probably other than what you are feeling/craving and if all else fails being kind to yourself always helps to reset!

  12. I'm deep in DBT treatment right now, and Opposite Action is a key tool for impulse control. The idea is not to replace one habit with another, but to intercept your decision-making moment right before you do a problematic impulse. And it works best when you go "all the way opposite". Your example with impulsive communication is a great one – you turned off your phone and really put yourself into the opposite direction of where your emotions wanted to take you. In DBT, opposite action is recommended for when your emotion is telling you to do an impulse that is ineffective towards achieving your goals. If the impulse is effective towards your goals, go ahead and do it, as mindfully as you can.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with DBT and Opposite Action! Super appreciated to hear a more experienced perspective… I mean, I can read some stuff about it, but the reality is that I have no idea what I'm doing, so it's wonderful to hear your perspective. Thank you!

  13. This is a cool article but I want to point something out. You wrote "I'm some lady with a BA in Sociology from a state school…" This statement, however jocular, insinuates that a degree from a private college or university is somehow better than a public one. I've been to both and there really isn't a difference other than price tag and elitism. Please don't put yourself — or others — down with statements like this. The Offbeat sites are so awesome at being inclusive and accepting but this feels off. Thanks for reading!

  14. I LOVE this post! Another way to think about "opposite action" (since I also have some trouble with the word "opposite"), is Charles' Duhigg's approach to changing a habit. He has an example of breaking his afternoon cafeteria cookie addiction by doing some experiments to diagnose exactly what was motivating that behavior… for him, the trigger was time of day (that mid-afternoon crash), so he then experimented with replacing the cookie with different rewards (a walk, a cup of coffee, an apple) until he figured out that the reward he really craved was the socialization with his coworkers.

    He has a handy flowchart if anyone wants to try it http://charlesduhigg.com/flowchart-for-changing-habits/

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