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Key Takeaways:

  • Distressing or overwhelming emotions may not always match the reality of the situation we are in.
  • The opposite action skill in DBT helps individuals change painful emotions by taking on an action that is helpful instead of harmful.
  • This skill works by intentionally counteracting urges from strong and unpleasant emotions.

Think back to the last time you experienced a moment where you were so angry that it felt like you would burst. Maybe you were already having a bad day because your internet was disconnected. On top of it, the service provider representative you called is taking forever to respond. When they finally get back on the line, you give them a piece of your mind.

Now imagine the same scenario, but consider what would happen instead if you have been practicing your opposite action DBT skills. Instead of being enraged, you are suddenly able to shift gears and calmly deal with the situation. You do not say things you will regret later on, and you are actually able to have a conversation with the representative and get your internet connection fixed. This is what DBT opposite action is all about — honing in your skills to do the opposite of what your emotions might be telling you to make better choices.

What is the Opposite Action Skill in DBT?

The opposite action skill in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is one that can help individuals change painful emotions. Opposite action can help you handle distressing emotions by taking on an action that is helpful instead of harmful. Doing so prevents any further suffering you may experience due to the distressing emotion(s). Opposite action can also stop you from doing something harmful.

What is the Opposite Action Skill Used for?

The opposite action skill is used for dealing with upsetting emotions that may lead to harmful behaviors. It is important to note that this technique is not meant to suppress emotions. It focuses on taking your distressing feelings and using them to take a different action. The result will be a change in your emotions.

This skill is useful in situations where you might experience emotions that are not realistic to the situation you are in. Examples are feelings that are out of proportion to what is happening or escalating emotions that you may want to challenge or change.

How Does Opposite Action Skill Work?

The opposite action skill works by deliberately counteracting the behavioral urges you feel as a result of strong and unpleasant emotions. This leads you away from potentially harmful actions that may lead to further pain. The opposite action skill also works by giving an individual a healthier reference point towards which they can direct their behavior to help ease the effects of distressing feelings. The result is the development of DBT distress tolerance skills and overall healthier coping mechanisms.

Examples of Opposite Action Skill

Understanding the opposite action skill may be easier when illustrated with concrete examples. Here are a few to help you get a better idea of the technique.


Lethargy often comes with a lack of energy, whether physical, mental, or emotional. When you experience lethargy, you may have urges to avoid doing anything. It may be tempting to sit around and do nothing all day. Notice that the urge to remain inactive in this case only prolongs the lethargy rather than helping you move through it.

To take opposite action, you can start by making a list of things that you can realistically do. These can be little actions that counter the lethargy, such as making your bed or tidying up. Remember that for opposite action to be effective, you must be willing to immerse yourself into the task at hand, even if you feel resistance to it. The aim is to focus on how you will feel when you have taken an action opposite to emotions you were experiencing.

Fear of Failure

Most people experience fear related to failure, especially when they are afraid that they will be viewed as inadequate in some way. Such a fear might lead to limitations later on in life by becoming risk-averse. If you feel that you identify with a deep-seated fear of failure, then it might be helpful to reevaluate your core beliefs about yourself.

Taking opposite action here can be something as simple as listing down all the ways that you can be successful and competent. Think of the different reasons you have that fear of failure, and try to think of the exact opposite. For instance, if you are afraid that you are terrible at social conversations, try identifying the topics that you are confident in speaking about. Try referring to DBT emotion regulation skills, particularly DBT check the fact skills, so you can use mindfulness to build an awareness of your thoughts and emotions. Remind yourself that the feeling of fear is an emotion that you can acknowledge, breathe into, and eventually let go of.

When Not to Use the Opposite Action Skill

While the opposite action skill is indeed useful, it is not always the best course of action to take. For instance, if you feel fear because you are in an unsafe situation, then listen to your fear; do not put yourself in that unsafe situation.

Another example is if you have done something that goes against your own ethics. Instead of simply doing the opposite action, it is best to own up to your mistake and apologize. You can use the DBT interpersonal effectiveness skill DBT FAST in a situation like this.

Notice that in these examples, your emotion fits the situation. Therefore, it makes sense to follow through with the appropriate action. Remember that opposite action is something we do when our distressing emotions are not in conjunction with the circumstances.

The Bottom Line

The opposite action skill can be challenging to master, but with enough practice, you’ll start to see positive results. Similar to other DBT skills, it is best to work with a licensed professional to properly learn and apply them. You can also use tools like DBT worksheets to further understand how this approach can help you.

We are all human beings with emotions, but that does not necessarily mean we have to act on each one. With DBT opposite action, we can create better possibilities for ourselves.

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