Opposite Action: Challenge and Change Your Negative Beliefs and Behaviors

It’s Seinfeld.

Jerry, George and Elaine are having lunch in the cafe.

Elaine points out an attractive woman at the counter, encouraging George to go and speak to her.

The exchange?

George Costanza: Elaine! Bald men, with no jobs and no money, who live with their parents, don’t approach strange women.

Jerry Seinfeld: Well, here’s your chance to try the opposite…If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

George Costanza: Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something! 

This pretty much epitomizes opposite action.

George transforms his luck by doing the exact opposite of his every instinct.

This isn’t a new phenomenon.

It’s a common technique used in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT).

And just as it helped George get his dream job at the Yankees, so too, it can help you.

What Is Opposite Action?

Opposite Action is a technique used in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) to challenge and change negative thought patterns and behaviors. It involves deliberately doing the opposite of your initial impulse or emotion in order to change and improve the situation.

For example, if someone is feeling overwhelmed and wants to isolate themselves, they would instead try to engage in social activities (the opposite of isolation).

To understand opposite action, it might also help to summarize Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which is an:

“Evidence-based psychotherapy that began with efforts to treat personality disorders and interpersonal conflicts…It is a process in which the therapist and client work with acceptance and change-oriented strategies, and ultimately balance and synthesize them.”

DBT was created by psychologist Marsha Linehan and combines behavior therapy techniques with mindfulness and acceptance strategies, helping individuals regulate their emotions and improve their relationships.

Opposite Action is just one technique used in DBT, but it can also be applied to other situations outside of therapy.

By deliberately doing the opposite of our initial impulses, we can challenge and change negative patterns, and ultimately improve our lives.

DBT differs from CBT in that it not only focuses on changing thoughts and behaviors, but also accepts and validates emotions.

When facing a difficult emotion, DBT teaches the idea of “effective emotional experiencing” – in which we tolerate and accept the emotion, while at the same time taking action to change it.

With our terms defined, let’s explore how opposite action works, plus an example from my own life.

Why Use It?

Our initial impulse or emotion may not always be the best response to a situation.

By taking a moment to pause and think about our emotional reaction, we can choose to act in a more effective and productive way.

For example, if someone is frothing at the mouth angry and wants to lash out, they could instead try to calm themselves down and communicate in a respectful manner (the opposite of lashing out).

Opposite Action can also help break negative patterns, challenging our automatic reactions to learn new, more effective ways of responding.

Opposite Action Examples

Perhaps the best example of opposite action in a real-life scenario is when dealing with discomfort.

As the evolutionary machines we are, we generally do our best to avoid expending excess energy.

Which means that when Amazon offers to deliver our next load of loo roll, instead of traipsing to the shops in the rain, we eagerly agree.

The problem with this tendency is that the desire for comfort and convenience slowly seeps into every other area of our lives.

Instead of working on our latest assignment, we default to the psychological comfort of checking our Facebook messages or doomscrolling through Instagram.

The result?

Our constant search for comfort never yields the progress that is only rewarded through hard work and sacrifice.

Some people, however, rather than succumb to the temptation of instant reward, harness the power of delayed gratification.

Instead of surrendering to their immediate desire for indulgence, they do the exact opposite of what their brain is telling them.

The result? Unlocking achievement.

Conditions Treated

But more than simply ignoring lazy urges, opposite action can be used for so much more.

In Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, opposite action is primarily used to treat Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Individuals with BPD often experience intense and unpredictable emotions, leading to impulsive behaviours and unstable relationships.

Opposite action can help these individuals regulate their emotions, improve their relationships, and ultimately lead a more satisfying life.

Abandonment

An example of opposite action for individuals with BPD might be if they’re feeling abandoned and want to isolate themselves, they could instead reach out to their support network.

In this instance, picking up the phone and speaking to someone or meeting a friend for coffee is the opposite of isolating.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a widespread problem and one that affects us all intermittently.

While it may present as a vague unease, at other times, it manifests in response to an upcoming event.

For example, I often experience anxiety about social gatherings – the typical introvert curse!

While a large part of me wants to engage in avoidance tactics, sitting at home with my cat for company, these are the times I know I must force myself to get out there and engage.

And afterward, I’m always glad I did.

Depression

Ah, depression – when faced with the black dog, I often want to curl up into a miniature ball in bed.

These feelings often center around the idea of pointlessness and inactivity.

In other words, I want to do nothing.

During such times of despair, I know it’s crucial to take what I like to call minimum viable actions.

Tiny behaviors, which on the surface, don’t seem like much, but have a positive effect on my mental health…

Making my bed, cleaning my teeth, having a shower.

By challenging my thoughts, I’m able to engage in activities that make me feel like a normal, functional human being (the opposite of staying in bed).

Heightened Emotions

While it may seem counterintuitive at first, opposite action can also be used in situations where we experience any excessive emotion, even seemingly positive ones.

Consider intense joy or excitement that might encourage us to make questionable decisions.

Instead of giving in to our impulses, we can take a step back and think about our actions, ultimately allowing us to enjoy the experience in a mindful and controlled manner.

How to Use It in Practice

  1. First, identify your initial impulse or emotion in a difficult situation.
  2. Next, consider how acting on that impulse may not be the best response.
  3. Finally, come up with a more effective and productive way to respond, and actively do the opposite of your initial impulse.

Sound simples? It is – but it’s definitely not easy.

Often when using this technique, we’re attempting to reverse years of ingrained behavior and unhelpful mental reactions.

That’s why there are some activities that can lay the foundation for applying the approach in sticky, real-world situations.

Opposition Action Activites

There are many activities that can help with cementing this technique and making it second nature:

1. Meditation

First, it’s vital that we have the cognitive awareness to observe and understand our minds.

When we’re angry, for example, we often don’t realize until it’s too late.

Developing a consistent meditation practice helps us to gain adequate psychological distance from our thoughts and emotions, noticing their presence as they arise.

2. Reflection

Writing therapy and journaling are the cornerstone of an examined life, and are techniques that can be applied incredibly effectively in this instance.

There are also a number of worksheets that therapists might use with clients to structure their reflective practice.

One example is to make a list of your go-to reactions in different situations, and then consider the opposite action you could take instead.

3. Observation

Before attempting to implement any major behavioral changes, simply try to notice opportunities in your daily life where you could apply the approach.

If your partner makes a comment that sends you into a seething rage, simply notice your reaction and subsequent response.

4. Practice

Before trying to overhaul every impulse, it’s prudent to practice opposite action in a safe environment first, such as role-playing with a friend or therapist.

When you’re comfortable, give it a go for reals.

Summary

Personally, I think opposite action not only helps us with our emotional health, but is also a key determinant of success.

Carefully consider your default reactions and kneejerk responses, and imagine the real-life scenarios which would elicit unwanted and retrospectively embarrassing behavior.

Then put a plan in place for observing these emotions as they arise, before flipping the switch and (like George) acting exactly the opposite.

The results may just surprise you.