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Doing the Opposite

“Doing the opposite” is a really effective, straightforward strategy that can be difficult to put into action. This technique involves doing the opposite of whatever behaviors you normally perform due to painful or negative emotions. Doing the opposite is a way to regulate your emotions, not deny them. Choosing a new, more functional, behavior can also positively affect your mood.

Every emotion has an emotion-driven behavior or urge. It is possible to change the negative emotion by doing the opposite of its behavior. Although avoiding painful feelings and situations works in the short-term, you are likely avoiding what you need to be doing to feel better in the long run.

Emotion Emotion-Driven Behavior Opposite
Depression Shut down, withdraw, isolate, avoid eye contact, maintain sullen, blank expression Be active, maintain eye contact, engage and act interested in conversations
Anger “Blow off steam”, aggression, yell, get defensive, and try to win each argument. Gently avoid by taking a break, talk calmly, smile, acknowledge other person's point of view
Anxiety Avoid certain people, situations, experiences, or things Approach/do not avoid, be engaged in situation, stay even if you are uncomfortable
Guilt/Shame Hiding, aggression, defensiveness Disclose, open up, maintain eye contact, speak calmly, apologize if needed

Why Do It?

While your emotions are valid, the emotion-driven behaviors may be damaging relationships, keeping you from accomplishing important things in your life, and responding to painful feelings in the same unhelpful ways doesn't make you feel it. It just intensifies the feeling and makes you feel worse in the end. Acting opposite to emotional urges tend to decrease the intensity of emotions. Sometimes your emotions feel real, but do not fit the facts of the situation.

Negative emotions have the tendency to make you do the same things over and over again in an attempt to make you feel better. People have the tendency to respond to stress the same way over and over even if it does not work. Doing the opposite encourages you to act in a new way rather than continuing to rely on the usual response.

What to Do:

  1. Identify and name the painful emotions
  2. Identify and name your typical responses to the emotions. What behavior follows this strong emotion? How do you react?
  3. Explore what you do in challenging situations that provokes emotion-driven behaviors. How do you express your emotional state? What words, gestures, postures, facial expressions, and tones do you use to communicate how you feel? Your response is made up of words and body language, and they impact each other. Your body language may mimic how you are feeling and your tone, posture, and gestures can result in different mood states. It can be hard to analyze your body language and tone, but pay attention. You may be scowling, slouching, or avoiding eye contact without realizing it.
  4. Identify opposite behaviors. Once you have specified how you react you negative emotions, specifically plan how you will do the opposite actions, words and body language next time you feel that way.
  5. Do the opposite. This is the hard part. Try to pick the easiest, least threatening situation to start, then commit to doing the opposite in that situation or with a particular person. As you feel familiar emotions do and say what you planned. Be sure your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice supports your opposite action.
  6. Evaluate the experience. How did you do? Be kind to yourself and realize you won't get it right 100% of the time. How did you feel? Did your usual feelings decrease or change in any way? Did you experience any emotions that felt new in that situation? What did you learn that will help you do better next time? Incorporate these new ideas into your plan.
  7. Improve and fine tune your plan for next time you find yourself in that situation. Try doing it in other contexts or in a more challenging situation. If you struggle with doing the opposite, use these tips that may help:
    • Pick an easy person and/or situation to start with.
    • Create reminders so you won't forget to follow through on your plan.
    • Share your plan and your commitment with someone who cares about you and can offer support.
    • Do part but not all of what you planned. Do more a little at a time.