It’s critical to acknowledge and accept our feelings (instead of suppressing them and pretending they aren’t actually present). It’s critical to sit with them. It’s critical to sit with the pain, the anger, the anxiety, the envy, the anguish, the discomfort.
It’s critical to identify the sensations swirling through our bodies. It’s critical to pinpoint where the tension resides.
It’s critical to breathe through the sorrow.
It’s critical to explore what our feelings are trying to teach us. After all, our feelings can be wise messengers—if we take the time to listen without judgment, if we get curious, and ask ourselves: What are you trying to communicate? What do you want me to know? What is missing? What needs to change? What need are you pointing to?
And it’s also critical to move on. It’s critical not to become consumed with our emotions, so much so that they start dictating our actions and creating a pessimistic, bleak perspective. So much so that you get stuck and unsure and think everything is awful. So much so that you become despondent and depressed.
In her new book Stop Self-Sabotage psychologist Judy Ho, Ph.D, features an invaluable tool for making sure that painful, difficult emotions don’t overwhelm us and lead to unhelpful, destructive behaviors. The tool is called “opposite action,” which is exactly as it sounds. It means acting “opposite to how you feel,” Ho writes.
“Using Opposite Action can help you to contradict the often ingrained idea that negative emotions are uncontrollable and show you very quickly that they don’t have to go on forever.”
Ho features a list of great opposite actions we can try:
- If you’re feeling scared, do something that inspires a sense of confidence. Do something you know you’re good at. Do something that takes courage.
- If you’re feeling sad, do something active. Do something to help someone else. Call a friend to see how they’re doing. Volunteer.
- If you’re feeling rejected, reach out to someone. Call. Text. Send an email. Or smile at a stranger. Or say something kind to the next person you see.
- If you’re feeling discouraged, encourage someone else. Support a friend in pursuing their goal. Do something—even if it’s super small—that helps you to feel accomplished.
You also can work through your emotions and actions on paper. Ho suggests listing your feelings; what you want to do (or did) because of that feeling; what you’ll do instead by using an opposite action; and your feelings after practicing that opposite action.
You can even keep a list of opposite actions for common feelings you feel or reactions you experience. This way, when you’re nearing overwhelm, you don’t have to think. You don’t have to get creative. You can simply consult your list, and pick an opposite (nourishing, supportive) action to take.
When you’re feeling any kind of feeling, name it. Say it aloud. Think about where you’re feeling this feeling in your body. Sit with it. Sigh. Cry. Scream. But don’t let the feeling lead you to an unhealthy, unsupportive behavior. Don’t let the feeling create a hopeless, helpless mindset.
Instead, try to engage in something that’ll nurture, encourage, sustain, and support you. Let the action remind you that you’re not alone, that you’ve got this, that there’s always hope. Real, tangible, genuine hope.