Opposite Action: A Useful Tool for Change

January 16, 2023 Joanna Satterwhite

Opposite action is a skill I learned as a patient in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) some three years back. I had begun DBT—a form of therapy that attempts to teach skills that can help counteract a particular behavior—for emotional volatility, and one of the very first skills that I learned was opposite action.

This skill is exactly what it sounds like; when the target behavior tries to manifest (in my case, when my emotions reached a fever pitch and I felt the need to scream or break a chair), the patient attempts to do the exact opposite. It goes without saying that this is easier said than done, and my success rate was dismal for a very long time. With practice, though, and in combination with other DBT skills, I was able to employ apposite action with relative ease and dismantle my volatility. 

Opposite Action Is for More Than Acute Crisis

I am a huge proponent of DBT as a form of therapy, but many of its skills have applicability beyond acute psychological situations. Doing the opposite of what a habituated neural circuit is telling you to do, for instance, can be a proactive tool for changing outdated personality traits as much as it is a tool for crisis intervention.

We all have things we'd like to change about ourselves, and although not every one of these inclinations is worth listening to, some of them are. Self-acceptance and self-love don't preclude transformation. This transformation can be spontaneous or intentional. If it's intentional, opposite action can serve as an efficacious instrument. 

Opposite Action in Action

I've employed this skill outside of my therapeutic experience with great success. For the vast majority of my life, I had a terrible self-image. I thought I was repulsive, and there wasn't a physical trait I didn't feel self-conscious about. About a year and a half ago, I decided this needed to change. Instead of resolving yet again to lose body and fat, save money for a nose job, and learn to do my hair and makeup to hide the rest of my seemingly endless flaws, I decided to attack the lack of confidence itself. I did this through opposite action.

When I went to the gym, I forced myself to keep my shoulders back, my eyes up, and move slowly and steadily. I made myself relax in the presence of beautiful women, telling my panicked brain over and over again that they had nothing on me. In short, I practiced acting like I owned the world. It felt ridiculous and awkward, and it didn't come easy, but over time, my effort paid off. I actually began to believe myself when I strutted through a door. 

Vanity aside, I can't express to you how much this practice changed my life. I barely remember what it felt like to hate every inch of myself and want to disappear into the wall. By doing the opposite of what my mind told me, I effectively changed my mind, and you can too. 

If there's something you want to change about yourself—your lack of confidence, your over-apologetic nature, or anything else—I say go for it. Begin experimenting with opposite action and strap in for the long haul. It's not going to feel good, but one day it will. Just keep pushing. 

APA Reference
Satterwhite, J. (2023, January 16). Opposite Action: A Useful Tool for Change, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 17 from

Author: Joanna Satterwhite

Joanna is a writer and teacher based in Atlanta. Find her on Substack and Instagram

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