DBT Video Text: Opposite Action

Home > DBT Video Text: Opposite Action

These are scripts from videos by Dialectical Behavioral Therapy creator Marsha Linehan describing DBT skills. You can purchase the videos from Behavioral Tech LLC.

Hi, I’m Marsha Linehan. I’m a professor at the University of Washington and I’m here on this tape to teach you some behavioral skills. Now these are skills I’ve been working on developing for a really long time. I do a lot of research and I work with a lot of people and the good news is, as far as we know, these skills work. 

Now the skills we’re going to be working on are the skills that have to do with emotions.  And this particular class is a class on how to change your emotions. And specifically, it’s how to change emotions that you want to change. Now it’s really important to pay attention to what I just said ’emotions you want to change’. So we’re not working on emotions other people want you to change, other people don’t like, other people have told you are not acceptable, etc., etc., etc. And we’re not working on the emotions you love, the ones you want to keep around, the ones you don’t want to get rid of.

Now, everybody has emotions that they don’t like. Sometimes you have emotions that you never like. Like hate, maybe, or disgust or real sadness. Ok. Those might be emotions you’d always like to get rid of. But other emotions, sometimes you want them, like anger, and sometimes you absolutely don’t want them, like anger again. So we’re going to work on…the skills we’re going to work on here are just how, when you’ve decided you want to reduce an emotion, how would you do it. 

Now the facts of the matter are, there are lots of ways to do it and we’re not going to go over all those ways. We’re going to go over one specific way of doing it, and the name of that skill is Opposite Action. So we’re going to work on the skill of Opposite Action as a way to reduce emotions you don’t want to have.

Now some of you may have a copy of the Skills Training Manual that I’ve written. And if you’ve got that Skills Training Manual then you are going to want to look at Skills Training Handout 10 and the name of that is the Emotion Regulation Handout 10 and it’s on page 161. So you want to be…you can follow along that while I’m talking.

Now the other thing is, even if you have that and for sure if you don’t have that, you are going to probably want to take some notes. And so in order to take notes, my suggestion would be for you to get up, walk to the TV set, push the pause button, go get yourself some paper, get yourself a pencil and then when you come back, sit down and get the thing running again. And while you’re going to do that, I’m going to go to a different room and get ready to teach the skills. And I’ll see you in a minute.

Opposite Action

Now you may be wondering ‘What in the world is the skill of opposite action?’ So you have to know a few things about emotions first. And the most important thing to know for the class today, is that every emotion has an action. That’s…it’s sort of if an emotion wants you to do something. And each emotion kind of makes you want to do something different. So for example, when you’re afraid, what you want to do is run away. For example, if you’re in a theater and someone yells ‘FIRE!’ and you get terrified, what do you do? You run. In fact, that’s how people end up panicked.

DBT Opposite Action: a statue in the position of running away

And have you also noticed that you also…if you aren’t running away from it, you just avoid going there in the first place. So you’re really afraid of applying for a job. So what do you do? Now admit it, you don’t apply for the job. Or, you’re really afraid of being criticized at a party so either you don’t go to the party, or you avoid every single solitary person you thing might say something critical. I get afraid sometimes in meetings that if I say something, I’ll get criticized. So what do I do? I keep my mouth shut. I know that’s hard to believe, but I’ve actually done that. 

So. Ok. Now, that’s fear. So let’s go through a few other emotions just to make sure you get the point. Ok. What do you want…what do you want to do when you are angry? Attack. That when people when they get angry that’s when people attack other people. You either attack him by hitting him, or pummeling him, or by yelling at him.

What do you want to do when you’re sad? Have you ever noticed that when you are really really sad, usually what you want to do is that you want to crawl into bed and put the covers over your head. You don’t want to do anything. When you get sad, you get slowed down and you sort of want to stay where you’re at. And you just sort of go like this:

And you don’t want to do a thing. So that’s when you are sad.

Or, how about when you are ashamed. Now what do you want to do when you are ashamed? Now shame is a very interesting emotion. Have you noticed that if you’re ashamed, usually what you want to do is hide. Start wanting to go like this?

So the point is what? Every emotion has an action. That’s the first point you’ve got to remember.

Now the second point is, if the emotion has an action that means the emotion causes the action. You can actually change the emotion by changing the action. In other words, not only do emotions cause actions, but actions cause emotions. And you can change your emotion by changing your action.

So it’s kind of a vicious circle – emotions cause actions and then actions cause emotion. And emotions cause actions and actions cause emotions, emotion cause actions, around and around and around, around, around, around. And the best way to think about it is that emotions love themselves. They just keep themselves going. That’s why it’s so difficult to change. Because they go round and round and round.

One of the ways that you can change your emotion is to just reverse the circle. We just start with action that is opposite and that circle starts going in the other way. And the emotion starts going down. Kind of like a miracle. 

So that’s what we’re going to work on tonight, is how to change your emotion by changing your action. 

Now there’s one more little detail that you’ve got to learn. So you’ve learned one point already which is emotions have actions. So we’ll assume you’ve got that. You’ve learned, two, that you can change an emotion by changing the emotion action. So that’s point two. Now you only have to learn one more thing and then I’ll tell you how to do the whole thing. And the other thing you’ve got to learn is this, is that it doesn’t always work. Changing your action does not always change your emotions.

And so you’ve got to figure out when is it going to work. The simple rule is this: Opposite action will work whenever the emotion is not justified by the situation. So that’s the basic rule. So the one thing you’ve always got to figure out is ‘Does the situation actually justify the emotion?’


So what justifies emotions? In other words, how will in the world would you ever figure that out? So you have to know a few simple things first. Fear is justified whenever the situation is a threat to your life, or your health, or your well being. Ok. So in those situations, your life or your health or your well being, they are being threatened. In those situations, fear is justified.

So imagine this, you’re in a building and there’s this long hall. And at the end of the hall there’s a room. And in the room there’s a ferocious lion. It’s a person eating lion. It gets you. So you’re walking down the hall, with me of course, and I say to you ‘Open the door and go in the room’. Is fear justified? Yes. The lion is in the room, you open the door and ‘gulp’ the lion gets you. 

DBT Opposite Action: the face of a male lion

All right. Now let’s imagine that it’s the next day and overnight, someone took the lion out of the room. There’s nothing in the room now. Is fear justified? What do you think?  Yes or no? So you have to ask yourself now ‘If there’s a room down the end of the hall and there’s no lion in it, is your life threatened? Is your health threatened? Is your well being threatened?’ So what’s the answer? No, no and no. Fear is not justified. Ok. Maybe understandable, it’s understandable if the lion was there yesterday it’s obviously understandable that you would be afraid. However, it’s not justified.

Now it’s the next day. There’s no lion in the room. But you’re still afraid because there was one yesterday. So you’re still afraid. So what’s the opposite action? What do you think? The opposite action would be not to avoid. The opposite action would be to open the door and walk in the room. Or if you’re in the room, the opposite action would be to stay in the room and not run away.

So opposite action is just the opposite of running away or avoiding. 

Now, so how do you think it works? I mean, why do you think this works? Think about it for a minute. If there’s no lion in the room and you run away, your fear is never going to go down because your brain will never learn that there’s not a lion in the room. And you will stay afraid of the room. Why will you stay afraid? Because you never find out there’s no lion in the room.

So opposite action works because it gets you to go into the room and you find out there’s not a lion. In other words, you find out its safe. In effect, you find out the emotion is not justified and once your brain has that figured out, fear will go down. 

Ok. So let’s take the example of the person who’s afraid to go to parties or afraid to go to class or afraid to go out in groups or be with people because they’re afraid they’ll be humiliated or laughed at or people won’t like them. So, what’s the opposite action? The opposite action…first of all you have to say ‘What’s the action of fear?’ If you’re afraid of going to parties, what do you do? You avoid. You don’t go. If you want to get over the fear of going to parties, what’s the action? The action is to go to the party.

Fear is justified if when you go to parties you get humiliated, laughed at, people tell you they want you to go home. They don’t want you to be there. And it’s altogether a disastrous situation. All right. Avoid. However, that’s not really the case for most people.  Most people when they go to parties, they may not have a fabulous time, ok. I’ll grant you that. That may be true. But usually there really isn’t a threat to health, life or your overall welfare

In fact, most people…if you went to a party and paid attention to how other people reacted to you, my guess is you would find that most of the time, when you’re at a party, people may not love you to death, but they’re not trying to kill you. They’re not jeopardizing, they’re not really threatening. And so if you keep going to parties, and you keep finding out that when you go to parties, things more of less go ok, what do you think would happen? Do you think you would get more afraid or less afraid? You’ll get less afraid because the thing that you thought would happen doesn’t happen. 

DBT Opposite Action: people gather at a party outside

So that’s opposite action. Opposite action…now when it comes to going to parties, there are two opposite actions. You’ve got to both go…that means you have to approach. And then you have to kind of go again once you get there because what you can do is…Have you ever noticed how you can go to a party and then avoid ever finding out what anybody thinks, you’re so afraid that if you looked at them you’d find out they really disapprove of you? So you go to the party and you keep your eyes down the whole time or you sit around in the corner somewhere? So you sort of go, but you really avoid? So you can’t do that. It’s not fair. That’s not doing opposite action.

If you’re going to do opposite actions, the basic rule is you’ve got to do it all the way. So you’ve got to not only body go to the party, but then you’ve got to have your mind go to the party because your brain has got to go to the party. So the brain’s got to be looking around and finding out what’s really happening.

Ok. Opposite action: go and pay attention.

I once had a person I worked with and she was really afraid of opening her bills. They would come in the mail and she was so afraid that she was going to be poverty stricken and she…she opened them up it just felt completely overwhelming and that she’d be totally undone, completely overwhelmed, her life would be over, etc. that when the bills came in she opened a drawer and put the bill in a drawer, closed the drawer.

What do you think happened? As a matter of fact, she got more afraid. So, what was the treatment? The treatment was opposite action. Opposite action was, if a bill comes in, open it. Now, it’s kind of like the party though. What if a bill came in and you said ‘Ha, but I won’t look at it? Just put in on the desk.’ So you learn how to get the bill and open it and [bam] put it on the desk.

So that’s halfway opposite action and that does not work. So she had to do all the way opposite action. And that meant that what she learned what to do was to bring the bill in, open it up and then keep looking at it. Actually what she was afraid of was, that if I get a bill and open it I won’t be able to pay for it and I will get overwhelmed and my whole life will end.

And what happened was, as the bill came in, if she opened it and kept looking at it, it was true. At first, her fear went way up, but if she just kept looking at it, didn’t do anything, just kept looking…opposite action, fear started going down. And then her mind started working and once her mind started working, well, she figured out what to do about the bill. And she took the steps to pay them off. And once she started looking at bills, over time, her fear went down.


Ok. Let’s move to anger. Now anger is a really difficult emotion. And, it’s really different from fear. First of all, the action of anger is completely different than the action of fear. The action of fear is to run away from something. So when you are afraid, you run away. And the action of anger actually is to almost exactly the opposite. It’s to run towards something and attack it.

Now, another action that goes along with anger that is usually not there with fear is the action of thought. It’s kind of what we start thinking. So we start thinking ‘this shouldn’t be this way, this is unnecessary, things could be different…’ When we’re angry at people we almost always think they should not be the way we are…they are.

And so the two things to look for in anger are going to be first you’re going toward something and want to attack it. And the other thing is that somewhere you’re thinking that whatever is there should not be there.

DBT Opposite Action: a person yells into a pay phone

So when is anger justified? Anger actually is justified whenever a really important goal is being blocked, or actually anger also, in humans at least, is often justified and comes up whenever you feel a lot of pain. So the things that really do it are either going toward something bets blocked or there’s a lot of pain. 

So you could say, ‘Well, I’m always being blocked. All my goals are being blocked. Anger is justified. I should attack.’ Or a lot of people say, ‘Listen I’m in pain all the time, anger makes a lot of sense. I’m going to be angry.’

So the problem with anger that makes it really different from fear is that with anger it’s justified a lot of the time. The problem is, is it just doesn’t work a lot of the time. And other words, even when it’s justified, you might want to get it down. 

So with anger, it’s not so important to ask yourself if it’s justified. It’s somewhat important because anger can do you some good sometimes. It gets you going. It gets you mobilized and gets you moving. 

But let’s say it’s done that for you. You’re mobilized. You’re moving. You’re going, and now it’s in your way because it’s too extreme. Or, let’s say that you’re angry and it’s not justified. You think someone has really hurt you or done something terrible to you, and they actually haven’t. So you get really angry and you’re attacking and it isn’t even justified cause they didn’t even do it. 

So in both those cases, we want to figure out how to get it down. The good news is, opposite action works. So what is the opposite action? Let’s go through some examples of anger and figure out what you would do to get anger down.

So we’re going to go through, and we’re not going to pay so much attention now to whether it is or it isn’t justified. Because the question there is going to be, really, do you or don’t you want the anger. In other words, is it doing you any good? 

So, what’s the opposite action? The opposite action to attack actually is to gently avoid. And it’s interesting, in every single treatment that I’ve ever seen that works for anger, the very first thing they teach people is, if you get in a situation that’s one where you are…have a history of getting really angry in, and you can’t control it, the first thing to do is to gently leave the situation to try to get yourself calmed down, more relaxed, better able to cope.

So strategy one: gently avoid.

So let’s say you’re at a party and a person you just can’t stand is there and this person has really been mean to you and said terrible things about you all of which are lies. So anger is justified. But, let’s say you don’t want to be angry, it’ll ruin your evening. You’re with a really good friend. There’s no point in getting angry. What do you do? Gently avoid that person. Walk all over the room except don’t walk wherever that person is.

Now, the problem is, if we all avoided every single thing that made us angry, we’d have to avoid half of our lives. Have you noticed that? There are lots of obstacles -there are obstacles all over the place. It’s kind of 20th and 21st century life. This is what’s doing us in is there is so many obstacles. And so anger is not only not useful, but we also can’t avoid all the things that make us angry.

So what do you do in that situation? What is the opposite action? Well, certainly it’s not to attack. Ok. So the first thing is know that you wouldn’t want to attack. But if you’re not going to avoid, what the opposite of attack? What do you think? It’s be decent. Don’t make the situation worse. And if possible, be a little tiny bit on the kind side.

Ok. So that’s opposite action one: when you have to stay around, and you’re not going to attack, be decent and if possible, a little bit kind. 

Alright now, if you’re going to do that, the bad news is you can still stay angry. How would you do that? Well, there’s another action that goes along with anger. Have you noticed that you could sometimes be decent to someone and then in the back of your mind, what are you doing? You’re saying, ‘That jerk’. And you’re being phony decent. You’re not really being decent, you’re being phony decent. 

Phony decent is the same thing as going to the party to work on your fear but then going around with your eyes closed and looking down. So you never find out that the people are actually nice to you. So it’s sort of like half way opposite action. 

So if you’re going to be decent and a little bit kind, you basically have to do it all the way. It’s just like with fear, you have to go all the way. And what would that be? You’ve got to get your mind to be kind and decent. Difficult, isn’t it? 

How do you do that? The easiest way I’ve ever found to do it is to try to figure out a way to think like the other person’s thinking. So the idea is to try to be empathic. To try to kind of understand their point of view. To sort of see it from their side. Because generally, if you can kind of walk around, sort of get out of your shoes and kind of walk around and then get inside the other people’s shoes, and then look out from their point of view, you’ll often drop your anger because often things make a lot of sense from their point of view.  They just don’t make sense from your point of view. 

So that is the opposite action, but remember, just like fear, you have to do it all the way. So if you have to stay around things that make you angry, the first thing to do is be decent. And the second is, do it all the way. That means you have to have a decent thought. And the way to have a decent thought is to try to think like the person thinks and see it from their point of view.


Now, the good news is, the really good news is, not only will your anger go down but actually, if you can see things from the other person’s point of view, interestingly, you will even be more effective at getting what you want. It actually beats out anger at getting what you want.

Step 1: Figure out what emotion are you experiencing? So figure that out first.

Step 2: Figure out what is the action of the emotion. In other words, ask yourself ‘What’s the emotion trying to get me to do?’

Step 3: Ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to reduce this emotion?’ It’s going to be hard to do opposite action if you don’t want to reduce the emotion. So assuming that you say ‘Yes’ you want to reduce that emotion,’ then you go to…

Step 4: And you have to figure out what is the opposite action. What’s the action opposite to the action of the emotion? So those are the first for steps. And then the…

Step 5: In some ways the most important step, of course, is that you actually have to do the opposite action.

Now the only way to really learn opposite action in such a way that it works, is to practice. Ok, so you’ve got to practice, practice, practice. It’s like, well, it’s like anything.  It’s like learning golf; it’s like learning to play the piano; it’s like learning math; it’s like learning any skill. It just requires practice.

Now some people when they are practicing find it really helpful to write down, like a little diary…So you could write down these steps and say, ‘Step 1’ and write out the answer. ‘Step 2’ write out the answer, ‘Step 3’… and so on. And other people, you know, that doesn’t help them at all. And they don’t like writing it out. And that’s fine too.

DBT Opposite Action: A person writes in a diary

Now if you do that, what you should see over time, over days or over weeks, is you ought to be able to see the emotion going down.

Now, practice and I’m almost certain that this will work for you. But, I’d actually, to be frank with you, like to find out if it worked for you. So if you’ve got this tape, you’ve probably got my email. If you’ve got my email, send me an email ’cause I’m dying to know whether it works or it doesn’t work.

I hope you enjoyed this tape. I hope you enjoy this skill. I know it’s really hard at the beginning. Lots of people hate it at the beginning. Most people love it after they keep doing it.

This text is the unofficial transcript of Behavioral Tech, LLC.
Chaos to Freedom Skills Training Video. Posted with permission from Behavioral Tech.
Transcribed by Sylvia James, May 15, 2006