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big, negative emotions + avoidance = feeling a lot worse?? it’s news to me
So apparently, we’re supposed to feel our feelings. Not intellectualise them. Not suppress them. Actually🚨feel🚨them, but what does that even mean? What would that look like? Just feeling bad for a bit? And then what?
Avoiding or distracting myself from negative emotions has its place, but in the long term, it makes the feelings stronger, more distressing and eventually harder to suppress.
I’m still trying to figure what feeling my feelings looks and feels like, but without knowing the answers to most of the above, I’ve managed to find something that helps me shift things a little bit when I am trying to handle a difficult emotion (read: every day on, like, a 90 minute cycle 🤡).
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✨opposite action✨ and how it works
It’s exactly what it sounds: doing the opposite action to what you are feeling.
Our emotions cause us to act certain ways and opposite action tells us to do the direct opposite because what we do can directly impact how we feel. Surely, we have all experienced feeling down but going outside or catching up with a friend regardless and noticing our mood changes as a result.
We have to start by naming what we are feeling, what it urges us to do and then what the direct opposite action is.
Anger tells us to attack → meet the situation with kindness and gentleness
Fear tells us to avoid and escape → approach with an open mind
Sadness tells us to withdraw and isolate → connect with people or nature
Shame tells us to conceal and hide → reveal and bring yourself into the light
The idea behind opposite action is that it can help you deal with distressing emotions by setting into motion an action that is helpful instead of harmful. Doing this counteracts the suffering you might otherwise feel because of the distressing emotion and prevents you from doing something harmful.
It’s important to know that this skill is not about trying to suppress your emotions. You are using that angry feeling to take a different action. The result of this will be a gradual change in your emotions.
Specifically for fear or anxiety, some research has suggested that there is less short-term relief than when using opposite action for other emotions. But it does have a long-term impact so it is still useful if you keep it at!
Some research also suggests that feeling anger can be rewarding and cathartic and therefore people are less likely to engage in opposite action to combat it.
an important caveat
It’s important to note that sometimes our emotions are right. They could be telling us something important that we need to listen to. Sometimes we should be angry or scared. These emotions help to keep us alive, safe and well.
And also sometimes, regardless of the reality of the situation, we shouldn’t always act on the emotions.
It is worth asking:
Is the feeling proportionate to the situation? Is it tied to reality?
Would acting on this emotion be beneficial at the moment?
For me, more often than not my anger, fear or sadness is tied to my mental illnesses which means I want to try and change it.
I’ve found opposite action most helpful in my relationships with others, despite most discourse around it being about solitary “inner” emotional experiences.
I was feeling jealous of someone else’s success and what it said about me and my failings and I hated feeling this way. I didn’t want to be jealous. I didn’t want to make it about me – even in my own head. But it was my instinctive reaction.
I want to be the type of person who can celebrate the people I love and not be stuck in my own head and my own perceived failings.
I had just finished a long day at work and it would’ve been easier to go home and feel bad for the rest of the night, but I felt pretty terrible and I was a little bit desperate for that to stop.
I made a conscious decision to stretch myself a little bit. I bought some flowers and went out of my way to visit and congratulate them that evening. And I felt a lot better. I felt like a good friend. And then I was able to actually use the evening to do what I wanted rather than just being upset and self-pitying. I had changed my feelings entirely.
Other times, I have been feeling particularly insecure in my relationships with specific people. I might be feeling that they don’t like me, they don’t want to be my friend, they’re going to leave me. It’s pretty easy to spiral from there until I have completely lost touch with the reality of the situation and the minutiae that triggered me in the first place.
Naturally, all of this makes me shut down and withdraw and push people away. A couple of times, when I’ve been very distressed and desperate, I’ve been able to do the opposite. I have, instead, gone towards that person and told them that I love them. I hope they have/had a good day. I’m thankful that I have them in my life.
I don’t even need to talk my own feelings through. The act of giving love and gratitude and kindness to someone else is enough to make me feel better.
some final thoughts
Opposite action is a hard skill to use. I’ve only used it a handful of times but those moments were rewarding enough to make me want to do it more.
I think it’s an easy skill to access during times of distress because it’s so logical. Almost mathematical. And that’s what I need when my emotions have full control: something clear and sharp to cut right through it. What emotion am I feeling? What is it urging me to do? What is the opposite action of that? Those questions seem simple enough to answer. I don’t have to go to deep to recognise if I am angry or sad or scared. I don’t even need to be too specific. And doing the opposite of my urge feels simple and logical enough to follow too.
Does this count as feeling my feelings? Maybe not. But it is acknowledging what I am feeling, not fighting it and trying to change it in a healthy and productive way. That’s beneficial regardless, right? Am I doing it?
I’m hoping to remember that this tool is in my toolbox. When I’m making better decisions and acting intentionally, I am living as my oldest wisest self. Even those small, short moments are something to be proud of.
Thanks for being here. See you next time.