Anxiety blocker #5: do the opposite

This 2008 Blockbuster movie has become a classic. Jim Carrey stars as Carl Allen, a guy whose life is going nowhere—the operative word being “no”—until he signs up for a self-help program based on one simple covenant: say yes to everything…. and anything. Unleashing the power of “YES”  and doing the opposite to his initial inclination begins to transform Carl’s life in amazing and unexpected ways, getting him promoted at work and opening the door to a new romance and life.

In some way this is related to the idea that doing the opposite to what our anxiety tells us can actually help us overcome anxiety. Moreover, it often even boosts our confidence and overall resilience. All emotions make sense. But at times fully expressing our emotions can be unhelpful. For example, as a leader showing your panic when you need to lead your team through a crisis is likely going to backfire. Being able to regulate our emotion when it risks getting in our way is a critical leadership skill. Opposite action means noticing an urge related to an emotion and then doing the opposite. Research shows: Changing behaviour often changes the way we feel. If a dog barks and we run away it raises our level of fear. If we approach the small barking dog, however, our fear likely lessens and even dissipates.

This anxiety buster is among the most challenging ones for our clients, yet it is also among the most powerful techniques to overcome anxiety and unhelpful emotions. Engaging in new behaviours that are independent of our mood is one of the main ingredients in scientifically supported treatments of anxiety, depression and even relational tension and conflict. Generally, anxiety motivates us to avoid whatever makes us anxious.  So sitting with what makes us anxious/upset/angry/annoyed (replace here with just about any emotion),  or even approaching it, will generally lessen the emotion. This sounds probably quite hokey so why not run a small experiment this week? For example, in your next meeting where you know you will find yourself bored, practice sitting closer to a key stakeholder, act interested, ask questions. Chances are that you may find yourself becoming more interested.

Now like Jim Carrey’s character in “Yes Man”, there may be situations where the willingness to embrace every opportunity to do the opposite might just become too much of a good thing. The context where “Do the opposite” is a good strategy describes situations in which acting the opposite emotion makes sense. If an emotion serves an adaptive function, such as running away from a robber in a dark alley, doing the opposite does not make sense. These are functional behaviours. However, if you are so afraid during a robbery that you can’t run because you struggle to breathe, some amount of doing the opposite of what you feel, for example slowing down and breathing, makes sense. Choose when to do the opposite after mindfully considering whether the action, as a result of your emotion, is effective.

Here is what we suggest;

Step 1: Notice and label your emotion and what action it pulls you towards. Rate your emotion based on its intensity on a scale from 1-10.

Step 2: Decide on whether acting on the full intensity of your emotion would be harmful or not in your best interest.

Step 3: If the answer to Step 2 is yes, do the opposite of your initial emotional urge, all the way, with your face, body and thoughts. What does this look like? Describe the choices you are making.

Step 4: Now, what do you notice about your emotions after doing the opposite?

Here it is in a nutshell: Change the way you act and you can change the way you feel.