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How to Get Through a Breakup: Using DBT Skill Opposite Action for Love

There’s no easy way to put it. Breakups are hard.

You are grieving the loss of a partner and the hopes you had for a future with them. Depending on how things ended, you may be left with feelings of anxiety, depression, or fear of abandonment.

If it’s of any consolation, what you’re experiencing is not an isolated event. Struggling to move on from a breakup is a relatable experience many have difficulties with.

Fortunately, there are helpful dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills that can support you in moving forward and getting through a challenging breakup. DBT skills can support emotional regulation, helping you navigate intense emotions in your relationship. While there’s no rulebook on navigating this time, there are some helpful ways to cope and manage strong emotions.

In this image, a man wearing an orange turtleneck watches around the corner as a woman with a suitcase leaves through a door to their New York City apartment. The image represents a breakup

What is opposite action?

Opposite action is a dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skill that involves choosing to do the opposite of what your emotions tell you.

When our emotions are strong, such as in a bad breakup, our feelings overwhelm the logical part of our brain. When we let these strong emotions run the show, we may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms or find ourselves unhappy.

Instead, we can utilize opposite action. Instead of acting on the strong emotions following a breakup, we can intentionally work to do the exact opposite.

For example, following a breakup, many isolate themselves at home, ignore calls and texts from friends and family, and shut themselves out from the world. In opposite action, you would intentionally do the exact opposite. Instead of secluding yourself at home, you would meet up with friends, get outside, work out, or do something positive for your mental health.

Opposite action is also based on the awareness that our emotions influence our actions. When we love someone, we naturally want to express that by spending time with our partners, meeting their needs, and, at times, making sacrifices for the betterment of the relationship.

However, this is a delicate balance. An individual must understand when love is justified and when it is not. When love is justified, the actions of both partners fulfill one another, enhance their lives, and foster a healthy and positive connection. In contrast, when love is unjustified, one is left to feel as though they’re not enough. The relationship is unhealthy and is not fostering growth for either individual.

When is love justified?

Determining when love is justified can feel complex. It is possible to love and care about someone deeply while knowing the relationship is unhealthy.

When love is justified, your partner enhances your life and treats you well. Their actions and behaviors nourish both you and the relationship.

When love is unjustified, unpleasant experiences outweigh positive ones. Your partner may undermine or belittle you. You may feel you’re constantly accommodating their needs, while they’re never willing to accommodate yours. You may feel emotionally drained.

If the feelings you’re experiencing are consistently negative, you may need to reevaluate the relationship. You may find yourself sad or anxious. The happy feelings present at the start of the relationship feel like a distant memory. You may even begin to resent other happy and healthy couples around you.

Going through a breakup is hard and can be incredibly isolating for both parties involved. Many people are tempted to hole up on their own, but the DBT skill of opposite action of love teaches us to do the opposite.

Understanding emotion regulation

In DBT, the emotion regulation module helps individuals understand how their emotions work. Instead of letting strong feelings drive your behaviors, emotion regulation teaches you skills to manage these experiences and promote more positive experiences.

To change one’s emotions, one first needs to recognize and identify their feelings. The model of emotions can help us to better understand our emotional experience during difficult times, such as a breakup. Here are the steps:

  • Prompting event or experience

A prompting event prompts or elicits an emotion. This event can be external or internal to the person and includes thoughts or memories. An individual’s thoughts and behaviors prompt these emotions. These are often automatic feelings that you experience without conscious knowledge. However, recognizing prompting events is crucial as you work to change your feelings.

  • Interpretation of the event or experience

We create stories of what we’ve seen or experienced. Often, our interpretation of the event or experience triggers our emotional response. The same event or experience can elicit several different emotions depending on interpretation. While your interpretation and emotional experience are valid, we need to check the facts to determine if it’s factual.

  • Biochemical changes or response

Our body naturally changes as we experience a wide variety of emotions. Examples include increased heart rate, blood pressure, tense muscles, or the skin temperature flaring or changing color. Some individuals can sense this, and others have a more difficult time. The better we are at recognizing these changes, the better likelihood that we can regulate our negative emotions.

  • Action urges

Action urges are biological and evolutionary. They are meant to protect us. Our emotions prompt our behavior and action. Therefore, you may be prompted to fight if you are very angry. If you are scared, you may be prompted to flee.

  • Behavior and communication

Emotions can be expressed through both verbal and nonverbal communication. When we experience an emotion, our response is to express ourselves through behavior and communication. This is highly influenced by action urges.

  • Name the emotion

It can be difficult to name an emotion if you’re not accustomed to examining prompting events, interpretations, or bodily changes. However, practicing and developing the ability to do so is vital. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Name it to tame it.

Now that you understand emotion regulation through the DBT lens, we can explore opposite action skills within the context of a breakup. Opposite action is most helpful after action urges and before behavior and communication.

How does opposite action work in a breakup?

After determining that love is unjustified, an individual can utilize opposite action of love.

The first step would be identifying action urges. What urges or behaviors would keep you tied to this former partner? Are you tempted to meet up, call/text, or check social media? Be honest with yourself. Identify and recognize the behaviors you’re aware of.

Ready for the hard part? After identifying these action urges, you commit to behaving the exact opposite of these urges. It is helpful to create a plan for when these scenarios arise. Rehearse what you want to do versus what you will do, regardless of how intense the urge is.

When the urge arises, continue to commit to opposite action of love. You are not simply ignoring the urges; you are doing the exact opposite. If you want to text them, delete their number. If you want to check in on their social media, unfollow or block them to resist urges and prevent possible triggers in the future.

As with any new skill, practice. You improve your skills when you commit to opposite action each time an urge arises. In time, these urges will decrease in

Exercise for opposite action of love

Here is a helpful exercise with guiding questions to practice opposite action for a breakup –

  1. Describe your current thoughts and beliefs about your former relationship.
  2. Name any other thoughts or perspectives regarding this relationship.
  3. Do your thoughts and beliefs fit the facts? Yes/No
  4. What action urges am I currently experiencing? What do I want to do that is unhelpful for my personal growth?
  5. On a scale of 1-5, how intense are these urges?
  6. What are the opposite actions to these urges? What does this look like?
  7. When have I utilized opposite action in the past? Describe.
  8. What was the outcome previously? Was I able to overcome these urges?
A woman riding a bike and spending time with a friend after a breakup, engaging in the DBT skill of opposite action for love.

Moving Forward with the Help of Opposite Action & DBT

Moving on after a breakup can be challenging. Letting go of what was and our hopes and dreams for the future can be incredibly painful.

Unfortunately, even with our best efforts, some love is not justified. When you feel the urge to revisit an unhealthy former relationship, remember the reasons you left.

Opposite action for love is a helpful DBT skill to move forward and pursue better opportunities and relationships that will enhance our lives and ensure happiness in the future.

Reach out to us at Suffolk DBT when you’re ready to learn emotion regulation, opposite action, and other DBT skills to equip you to make positive changes in your life.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills and treatment can help you or your kids to manage emotions and work through life’s challenges. Suffolk DBT proudly provides quality dialectical behavior therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, at their offices in Manhattan, Suffolk County, and Nassau County, New York, and online.

Suffolk DBT proudly provides quality dialectical behavior therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, at their offices in Manhattan and Long Island, New York and online. Their experienced NYC therapists specialize in serving teens, children, adults, and college students struggling with depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and self-harm. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills and treatment can help you or your kids to manage emotions and work through life’s challenges.

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