When I was in therapy, one of the most profound DBT Skills I learned was Opposite to Emotion. Opposite to Emotion is an Emotion Regulation skill, although it can be considered Distress Tolerance, and I sometimes consider it an Interpersonal Effectiveness skill as well. It takes practice and a lot of Wise Mind to use effectively, which means if you are still in crisis, you should go to the simplest Distress Tolerance skills first.
Sometimes we have an ineffective emotion, one that is either inappropriate to the context or one you need to put off addressing until you are in a safe space. This comes up SO OFTEN as a parent of small children. All emotions are valid and need to be addressed, but it’s usually a bad idea to act out of emotion. Otherwise we’ll be tantruming alongside our kids! Let’s be honest, most of the time the emotion we as parents need to act opposite of is anger. So let’s use that as an example of how to act opposite to emotion.
To act opposite to an emotion, you first have to identify that emotion and how it makes you feel. You have to be able to catch yourself and say “I am feeling angry. It makes my face hot and my jaw set. It makes me want to yell or hit.” Let me reiterate, this is a perfectly valid emotion. Anger is our body’s response to attack, our body just hasn’t learned that all threats do not necessitate physical aggression. It is understandable to want to hit your kids, or to want to act aggressively toward them. It is obviously not okay to do so! But sometimes we have to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths if we want to act effectively.
To act opposite to anger, we need to do the opposite action, including paying attention to our body language. It’s helpful to step away for a minute if you can. If not, don’t worry about looking a bit silly – acting in anger looks way sillier in the long run! If anger causes you to clench your jaw or ball your fists, focus on relaxing those parts of your body. If it causes your face to go hot, try and splash some cool water on your face or fan yourself. If anger causes you to yell and talk fast, focus on speaking softly and slowly (bonus: this often de-escalates the person you are communicating with!).
For other emotions, think about what the root feeling is. For fear, it is being out of control, so take control and do small steps toward the thing you are scared of. For guilt and shame, the instinct is to hide, so you need to put yourself out. If you did wrong apologize; if your guilt is unjustified, practice confident body language while you do the activity that causes you unjustified guilt.
Opposite to Emotion is a short term skill. It’s also important to not to suppress your emotions, to make time to feel those emotions and be mindful to them. If you are feeling angry all the time, you need to address that anger in other ways – by keeping an emotion log, checking in on if your adhering to PLEASE skills, evaluate your values, or look at if you need to ask for help or address a person or stressor in your life. We will talk more about those skills in the coming weeks.