Uncomfortable feelings are powerful motivators. Unexamined, they have the power to dictate our behavior and significantly impact the way our lives look by urging us to avoid or escape by any means necessary—even when it means moving away from the things that matter most to us.
It’s completely normal to react to discomfort by acting on urges to do whatever will lessen or minimize the pain, or by avoiding anything that carries the potential to amplify it. But when our reactions begin to limit our ability to function in accordance with our values, it may be time to try something new.
Doing the opposite is one exercise that can really help clients who tend to react to uncomfortable thoughts or feelings in self-limiting or destructive ways. When a painful emotion shows up, have the client do the opposite of what her urges are telling her to do.
“Opposite action is away of regulating your feelings, not denying them. It’s a way of acknowledging your experience but choosing new behavior to modulate or change what you feel,” says Matthew McKay, clinical psychologist and author of the book Mind and Emotions: A Universal Treatment for Emotional Disorders.
In a 1993 study, Marsha Linehan, who founded dialectical behavior therapy, found that giving in to urges to act on painful feelings leads to more emotional intensity, not less. In other words, when we give in to our urges to avoid or escape painful emotions, we don’t actually achieve any sustained pain relief in the long run. In response to her findings, Linehan developed a more workable strategy: Whatever the urges said to do, do the exact opposite.
Linehan’s approach was later adapted by David Barlow, who incorporated the method in his cognitive behaviorally-based unified protocol for treating emotional disorders. Through use in clinical settings, Barlow and colleagues confirmed that while behavior that is largely emotion- or urge-driven may relieve difficult feelings in the short-term, it actually intensifies them over time (Moses and Barlow, 2006; Allen, McHugh, and Barlow, 2008).
If, when urges arise, we choose to go against what they tell us to do, the intensity of our emotions decreases. For example, if feelings of anxiety about being social have kept a client from going to an afternoon barbecue, he may notice that his anxious feelings are kept to a minimum for the afternoon. Unfortunately, they will reemerge when it comes time for the next social event, and with increased intensity with future events over time.
But why is doing the opposite effective?
“Doing the opposite directly targets experiential avoidance, a transdiagnostic factor and coping strategy in which one tries to avoid painful feelings by avoiding certain situations and activities. Doing the opposite also addresses a second transdiagnostic factor: response persistence, which is the tendency to cope with stress in the same way, over and over, even if it doesn’t work,” says McKay.
It’s often the very thing we least want to do that holds the key to us feeling better, so doing the opposite of what our immediate urges tell us, though counter intuitive, is ultimately of greater use to us. Plus, doing the opposite encourages us to develop a new way of relating to our difficult emotions, instead of simply going along with the same old habitual responses that keep us stuck.
Emotion-driven behavior includes things like repeatedly declining invitations to attend social gatherings because you feel awkward or uncomfortable in groups; staying inside the house all day even when it’s beautiful outside because you feel low and depressed; drinking alcohol to escape feelings of social anxiety at family gatherings; and exploding in rage over everyday annoyances like traffic delays or poor customer service.
Notice that none of these behaviors actually address or make sustained contact with the emotional issue that triggers them in the first place. The discomfort, depression, social anxiety, and anger are still there when the next triggering situation emerges, and in fact, they’re likely to be amplified.
And doing the opposite isn’t an easy thing to do, by any means. Over time, you can learn to respond more flexibly to urges, but it will take a commitment to practice.
McKay suggests clients start with an easier, relatively non-threatening situation, and work their way up to the things that feel more aversive or uncomfortable. Encourage them to identify a situation beforehand, outline a plan to do the opposite of what they know from previous experience their urges will tell them to do, and to keep practicing.
As with any therapeutic exercise, it’s important to keep in mind the function within the given context and the purpose it serves. If clients are resistant to doing the opposite, or find it overwhelmingly challenging, it may help to remind them that by resisting the urge to act on emotions by doing the opposite, they’ll be learning about the temporary and nonfatal nature of even the most difficult to feel emotions. In doing so, over time they’ll become less likely to fear feeling them.
“Acting contrary to your feelings gives a sense of empowerment—a sense that you’re more in control. It allows you to participate more fully in your life, living according to your values rather than your fears and doubts,” says McKay.
Through practice, difficult feelings can actually become a signal to do the opposite of what your urges originally told you to do. You’ll lessen the automatic inclination to hide, avoid, distract, or react in ways that don’t line up with what’s important to you, and live a more meaningful, fulfilling life.