Sometimes when we consider the four categories of DBT – Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotional Regulation and Interpersonal Effectiveness – it can be challenging to see a particular skill set as belonging in one category as opposed to another. For example, when we think about regulating our emotions, this seems like something that’s rather unlikely to be accomplished without the use of mindfulness. One could also reasonably consider the idea of emotional regulation as a distress tolerance technique – as in; certainly we need to regulate our emotions if we are going to successfully tolerate stress. The valuable thing to remember is that how we classify the components of Dialectical Behavior Therapy is far less important than the act of learning to apply the techniques – and experiencing how these tools enable us to better handle our thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
All dialectical teachings are about balance. Today’s DBT decoded topic, Opposite Action, is an emotional regulation tactic for bringing our emotional state into balance. The idea behind Opposite Action is to first acknowledge an emotion that’s bothersome, maybe even unrelenting – and realize that the action we first consider taking may not be the best option for us. For example, when we experience road rage, we become angry at a driver who cuts us off, drives too close to us, or honks the horn the moment that the light turns green. Our anger may lead us to want to lash out at the driver and let him know that we’re annoyed. As he speed ahead, if the action we consider is to speed up and engage the driver with hand language, honking our horn or driving too close to him – the logical side of our brain tells us that this is not smart – and that there’s little to be gained and perhaps much to be lost.
By doing the opposite action, we decide to drive slower and let this car head on down the road without us. At first, our ego may not like this choice, but after we’ve done it, we realize that we’ve chosen an action that deescalated the event, rather than continuing the engagement. Perhaps it’s not always as easy, or cut-and-dry, as the road rage example. Let’s look at another. What if our emotional state is one of uneasiness and shame, as we consider some of the unwise things we did prior to becoming more mature, or sober, adults? A natural response to our feelings of shame may lead us to shy away from trying new experiences; for fear that we’ll fail again. If we stay away from people and relationships, we can guard ourselves from failing – and keep ourselves from feeling even worse. Fortunately, the reasonable side of our brain kicks in and reminds us that we also cannot repair, improve or establish new relationships if we isolate ourselves. The right answer is for us to choose the opposite action – to become socially active, try new things and realize that facing the unknown is part of what makes life interesting and worth living. This is also where calling upon other DBT teachings is helpful. By acting mindfully we can stop living in the past and embrace the possibilities that exist in the present moment. It’s important to note that opposite action is not the same as ignoring your negative emotions and seeking action as a distraction. The DBT concept of opposite action employs the mindfulness act of observing your emotional state, honoring that emotion and taking note of the action that first comes to mind as a “solution.” We can sense when we’re getting hot under the collar and considering doing what we want to do — right or wrong. If we have no handy alternative, we might just do it because of the initial sense of relief, or release. That’s why we’re fortunate to remember that there are other options. When we feel strongly about something…we’re so far to one side of our thoughts…that doing the opposite is a tactic for pulling ourselves back to center – toward our wise mind that lives between our emotional mind and our reasonable mind.