DBT Skills: Do It Anyway

Welcome back to DBT skills, the land where we teach you basic, evidence based things about how to have emotions and live in a society with other people! Last week we covered one of the more enjoyable skills, build positive experiences. This week we’ll be focusing on something that isn’t quite as obvious and which is a little bit harder to put into practice, but which can be highly effective when used skillfully. This week’s skill is called opposite to emotion action.

The basic idea behind this skill is that sometimes it’s helpful to recognize that you have an emotion, recognize that the emotion is not appropriate or is more intense than is appropriate for the situation, and decide that you would like to behave in a way not dictated by that emotion. Many times, beyond simply being a practical way to continue your life, this can also help to alleviate the emotion.

Ok, well that sounds just great doesn’t it. If I could just ignore what I’m feeling and live my life anyway I wouldn’t have any problems. How am I supposed to do this magical task? I’m glad you asked, because the wonderful world of DBT doesn’t just tell you to do things, it actually gives you step by step instructions of how to accomplish basic adult functioning, unlike everyone else in the world.

Mindfulness Therapy Associates has a great break down of the steps of opposite to emotion action:

  1. Use Mindfulness to notice the emotion, the action urge (and, if possible, the prompting event and the interpretations of the prompting event).
  2. Ask yourself, is this emotion justified or unjustified?
  3. Don’t suppress the emotion, when we suppress emotions, they just get bigger. Emotions are not the problem – urges and/or intensity are the problems.
  4. sk yourself, if the emotion is justified, if the intensity of the emotion is justified or helpful. If the emotion is not justified or the intensity of the emotion is not helpful:
  5. Do the opposite of the emotional urge.
  6. Do all the way Opposite Action

A few highlights from this breakdown: in stage number two, you’ll be using a skill that we haven’t talked about just yet called “checking the facts”. A good place to start is by learning how to describe your emotions, the prompts for your emotions, and the actions that your emotions are pushing you to take. Check out DBT Self Help for some good exercises. No emotion that we have is always wrong. Each one makes sense in certain contexts. If someone is threatening you or someone you love, then fear is justified. If someone has crossed your boundaries, then anger is justified. If you have done something that violates your values, then shame is justified. Spend some time thinking about whether or not an emotion that’s stressful to you is justified.

When you hit stage 5, you might find yourself dragging your feet a bit. OK, so I feel shame and that makes me want to leave or hide. I need to stay. Well fine, I’ll stay but I won’t be happy about it and I won’t talk to anyone and I won’t make eye contact. Sorry sister, not how it works. That’s what step 6 is. You don’t get to fake it. If you are doing an opposite action to anger, you have to take some deep breaths, unclench your muscles, relax your face a little bit, make sure you aren’t holding your hands in fists, and do what you’re doing all the way. This is one of the places in which it’s useful to be able to describe an emotion not just internally, but also physically. What does your body do when you’re sad or anxious or guilty? What changes can you make to the way you’re holding yourself or what you’re physically doing to commit to an opposite action? This is the crux of opposite action. Once you’ve realized that the emotion isn’t helpful or justified, you can take some physical actions that will both alleviate the emotion and help you get your body moving towards doing the opposite thing.

On a larger scale, it’s possible to use opposite to emotion action to combat recurring emotions that are getting in the way of your life. If you always feel guilt over doing nice things for yourself, then make yourself do nice things for yourself regularly. Set a goal: I’m going to buy myself a cup of coffee once a week or spend one night a week at home watching Netflix. When I was in DBT, my therapist set one of my fellow groupmates the goal of arriving late to group at least once in the next month to help her desensitize to the intense guilt she felt about letting people down. If you’re noticing that you always tend towards one emotion, or that when you feel a certain emotion it gets out of control and overly intense all the time, you might try setting yourself some opposite to emotion goals.

Tune in next week for checking the facts!

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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