We often act consistent with how we feel. If you wake up in the morning and you don’t feel like talking with people, maybe you don’t answer the phone. If you don’t feel like going to the grocery store, then you don’t go. If you don’t feel like networking then you cancel the luncheon. If you don’t feel like being kind, you may talk gruffly to your friends and co-workers. Perhaps you even justify your actions, or attempt to, by saying, “I’m just in a bad mood.”
Emotionally sensitive people in particular often feel controlled by their emotions. You may push people away while upset and then deeply regret doing so when you are calm. Your emotions lead to actions that in the moment seem like exactly what you need and even must do. You may see your actions, such as pulling out of a relationship, as the only possible solution to a problem or as the only way to protect yourself from pain. Then later you regret your actions.
The problem is that the more you act consistent with emotions, the stronger the feeling becomes. If you isolate in your room because you are feeling depressed, then your depression is likely to increase. If you avoid people because you are anxious, then your anxiety will increase. If you are feeling frustrated and talk in a gruff manner, then your frustration will probably grow.
Emotions have actions that naturally follow and these actions work like a feedback system to the brain to confirm the emotion. If you are staying in your room then the message to your brain is that you are depressed. Acting consistent with depression then increases the intensity of the emotion. In addition, acting in mood dependent ways often has undesirable consequences.
When you recognize the feeling you are having, such as depression, and the action that naturally follows, such as withdrawal, you have an opportunity to change your emotion by acting in a different way. When you act in ways that are opposite to what you are feeling, the feedback to the brain does not confirm the emotion and you may ease the emotion, even change the way your are feeling (Linehan, 1993).
William James, often referred to as the father of American psychology, said, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.
To act opposite to depression, you would be more active and interact with others. To act opposite of anxiety you would do what scares you. Going through the motions is a start, but to be truly effective with acting opposite to emotion, you must throw yourself in whole-heartedly. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) terms you would participate fully in acting opposite to your emotion. You would do it mindfully, being fully present in what you are doing. For example if you decide to act opposite by going to the grocery store when you want to stay in bed, you would do so by fully concentrating on the groceries you are buying and the people you interact with rather than wishing you had never left your house. When those thoughts come, which they probably will, notice them and gently bring your focus back to what you are doing. Stay mindful of the world outside.
Opposite to Emotion Action with Yourself
Sometimes the action that comes naturally with depression or disappointment or sadness is to emotionally berate yourself. You may ruminate over and over on your failures or your worthlessness. Opposite action would be to wholeheartedly treat yourself with loving-kindness. In addition to helping change your mood, the benefit for those who tend to dislike themselves is that you may change your view. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”
Note: The Emotionally Sensitive Person: Finding Peace When Your Emotions Overwhelm You is available for pre-order and will be published on November 1, 2014. Thank you to everyone who helped make this book possible. If you are interested, check out The Emotionally Sensitive Person podcast on iTunes.
Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press.