Our emotions are incredibly valuable. They are smart messengers because they provide us with all sorts of vital information.
They tell us when we need to set a stronger boundary. They tell us when we need to make a change in our lives. They tell us what we want. And these insights are key to taking actions that support us, that foster our well-being.
Sometimes, however, acting on our emotions isn’t supportive or helpful. Sometimes our emotions steer us along unhealthy, even destructive, paths.
This is when we can turn to a critical skill from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) called “opposite action.” Which is doing the opposite of what an emotion is telling us to do.
So, as Jennifer Rollin noted in this piece, if you have the urge to restrict your food, you eat a nourishing meal instead. If you have the urge to keep your struggles a secret (because you feel shame), you talk to a therapist instead, said Sheri van Dijk.
If you have the urge to stay in a toxic relationship, you end it instead. If you have the urge to weigh yourself regularly, you toss the scale in the trash. If you have the urge to buy another diet book, you buy a book on intuitive eating, a book that focuses on honoring your body and listening to your own internal cues, cravings and needs.
If you have the urge to drink a glass (or five) of wine, you savor some juice and take deep breaths, reminding yourself that you’re not missing out, because now you are awake, now you are present and participating in your own life, now you are facing the things you need to face so you can take exquisite care of yourself.
If you have the urge to wake up early and exercise for the sixth day in a row, you sleep in and give yourself the permission and space to rest.
In other words, the next time you’re experiencing an emotion, sit with it. Slow down. Pause. Close your eyes. Take deep breaths. And reflect on whether acting on this emotion, on this urge, will create a helpful outcome, or whether it won’t.
To assist you in making that decision, you might consider these questions:
- Does this contribute to my well-being?
- Does it nurture me mentally, emotionally, physically or spiritually?
- Is this something I’d advise my friend to do, too?
- Will this cause more pain in the long run (e.g., in the case of avoiding something because it’s anxiety provoking)?
- Is this damaging to me or self-destructive?
- Would it help to reach out for help?
- Is this aligned with my values?
- Is this harmful to me?
- Is this empowering me?
- Is it helping me connect to myself?
If you’re up for it, you can even journal your responses. And when a similar urge hits, you can reread what you wrote to remind yourself of the healthy, helpful action you’ll be taking.
Doing the opposite can be hard. But it also can be incredibly nourishing. The great thing is that we get to decide which path we choose.
We aren’t shackled to our emotions or urges. At any time, we can pause, reroute and take a different action. An action that will sincerely support us.