Opposite Action and Emotions

Sometimes when we are feeling strong emotions and even aversion to situations, it doesn't always mean our accompanying thoughts and actions are helpful to the situation. The Opposite Action DBT skill will teach us how to get out of spiraling emotions or behavioral ruts in a way that will better our lives not just in the moment but overall.

Simple but powerful, the opposite action is exactly what it sounds like. You tell yourself to do the opposite action or feel the opposite emotion of what you are doing/feeling. It is straightforward but has helped people tremendously to snap into their wise mind. Wise mind is the mind you want to depend on throughout your days. It is the inner adult, or older friend, or inner coach and parent that we all need for ourselves as independent adults. Just knowing they can rely on snapping into the opposite action puts people at ease, making them more confident about decision making.

The Importance

It is important to use the opposite action because sometimes when we are feeling down we make poor choices. We also can get into a deeper and darker emotional place if we don't allow ourselves separation from a feeling. The repetition of negative behaviors and emotions can prolong our suffering unnecessarily when the provoking event has long past. Plus opposite actions are powerful! Think of smiling next time you feel nervous standing in line at the grocery store. “The muscles used to make a smile actually send a biochemical message to our nervous system that it is safe to relax the flight or freeze response.” ― Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha .

Opposite Action Chart

In the next section, to teach more about opposite action, common situations are listed followed by how you could use the Opposite Action skill as your personal assistant or life coach to help you.

Lack of Motivation

There are times when our bodies seriously need a break, we aren't well, or we just need a breather. But if you are finding that you are in a serious habit of not following through with your plans perhaps you could use a little push from the opposite action skill.

Ex: David doesn't know what is lowering his mood but he can't seem to shake this sense of hopelessness, so he refuses to do the cardio when he comes home from work. Using opposite action David reminds himself that at work he's sitting all day, and that the cardio will help him feel less sluggish and even boost his mood. He doesn't feel like doing cardio at all but he jumps up like it's the best thing in the world, puts on his favorite workout video and gets moving. Using the opposite action boosted his mood and energy levels so he's more likely to use it again tomorrow.


Dealing with intense dark moods can bring people to do all sorts of things they know they will later regret, such as smoking, drinking, or binge eating. It can be tempting to put on sad music on repeat and sing to them or text someone we miss repetitively. However, activities that may seem therapeutic at the moment may have prolonged adverse effects. It is good to get out of our emotions but there are both positive and negative ways. This is where the opposite action can come to the rescue.

Ex: Veronica starts to remember everything about her emotionally abusive ex. A painful wave comes over her and she feels lonelier than ever. In shame she isolates herself. Feeling angry towards everyone and everything she refuses to talk to anyone. Veronica however uses opposite action one day to spark up a convo with a friend that always makes her smile. She uses opposite emotions by smiling and thinking positive and writing in a gratitude journal. It doesn't come naturally at first but it leads her into having enough strength to take a walk. Then when she feels down again she takes herself to the movie, reminding herself it's okay to be single. Using the opposite action she was able to get out of the spiraling dark thoughts that could have led her to a prolonged depressed state of reality.


When we feel angry sometimes the first thing we want to do is shout or if it's someone that hurt us, hurt them back. But we all know how the smallest of arguments can turn into volcanoes when people aren't able to get a grip on their emotions and behaviors. Emotions and behaviors can snowball once we get started. Anger management classes teach that even shouting will engage your anger response more, making you angrier, by literally telling you: Your angry. That's why doing the opposite can be crucial when you don't want to break the law or want to save relationships. Instead of engaging in a combative argument, we can remove ourselves from a situation. Instead of labeling a person or event as bad or disgusting, we can even try to look at the positives about the situation or person causing anger.

Rob is so angry at his best friend for taking his money again from the counter that he wants nothing more than to throw a punch when he sees him. He's seething and feel like a ball of fire is inside his chest. Knowing that he might really hurt his friend and get in trouble, and that fighting goes against his moral code, Rob seeks out the opposite action.
Instead of punching the wall, he immediately drinks some water to cool down his body temperature and starts to take deep breathes. He lowers his shoulders. He hears his friend come in but he's still so angry he knows he could charge when he sees his friend. So, he plays music he finds calming and writes an assertive letter to Rob. He knows that if he uses profanity he will just get himself more heated, instead he kindly asks his friend to move out by the end of the month if he can't control himself around other people's money. He problem solves and tells himself that he won't leave money hanging around too as maybe his friend has a deeper issue they could talk as adults about.
Using the opposite action, Rob was able to take control of the situation rather than have it control him and even feel a bit of empathy towards his friend.