Freedom in Rebellion: Opposite Action in Action
Once while sitting in a process group, I asked a patient, “what’s it like doing something completely opposite from what you normally do?”
She quickly responded, “like being baptized…I’ve lived my whole life underwater and it feels like I’m finally being reborn.”
I was awestruck by this analogy and the truth it held. Many people battling addiction—be it to substances, disordered eating behaviors, or other processes—liken the all-consuming power of their codependency to the sensation of drowning. The courageous women I work with on the residential eating disorder unit of Focus Treatment Centers come to us gasping for air after countless months, even years, of drowning in eating disorder and substance abuse behaviors. Our team of dietitians, therapists, and medical staff seeks to help each woman navigate the waters of her addiction and find the right tools to equip her to swim back to shore. One of the therapeutic tools I have found most effective in starting that journey back to solid ground is opposite action.
Opposite action is an integral skill in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) developed as an antidote to something called experiential avoidance. As humans we are programmed with two basic functions: move away from threat and move toward what we want. This evolutionary truth is helpful when, for instance, we find ourselves trapped in a burning building or in need of nourishment. We can thank our instinct to avoid harm for springing us into action and out of the building, in the same way we can thank our instinct to get needs met for giving us the motivation to get to the grocery store, prepare a meal, and sit down to eat it. This process gets complicated, however, when we must confront a perceived threat in order to get what we want. This is when experiential avoidance comes into play and, often, when disordered behaviors crop up. We want to form new relationships, but feel anxious when meeting new people, so a few glasses of wine become the prescription to avoid discomfort while still engaging with introductions and small talk. We want to go on vacation to the beach, but feel insecure in a swimsuit, so dieting gives temporary confidence and comfort-ability to relax in the sand. While these “antidotes” provide desired outcomes in the moment, they are fleeting and ultimately move us away from what we truly want, need, and value in life. Maybe a few glasses turn into a bottle and lead to loss of control and actions—ultimately compromising the friendships the few glasses of wine “helped” create. Maybe the diet turns into days of fasting that result in dehydration—making a bed in the cold hotel room the setting of the rest of your vacation stay. Quick solutions do not provide lasting outcomes.
Addiction is a cycle of sequenced, quick solutions. While engaging in disordered eating behaviors may meet the immediate need for acceptance and peace by maintaining a certain body type or silencing food obsessions, our patients frequently have moved away from ultimate peace and acceptance along the way by adding pain, chaotic behavior, and health complications to their lives. This shared experience of addiction is where opposite action can save and free us. When met with an uncomfortable situation, do the opposite of what is easy and embrace the discomfort. Get curious with the impulse for temporary relief and experiment with a new and opposite coping skill. When we are moving away from what we truly want out of life because it causes us pain and discomfort, the only way out and back to the life we value is turning around and walking back through the pain with opposite action. Doing the opposite of avoidance, in whatever form it manifests, results in connection with the truest expression of our values.
Opposite action helps us learn that joy is not intoxication, true joy is sharing stories over pancakes and coffee at brunch. It helps us understand acceptance is not a size, true acceptance is showing love and compassion to all parts of you. This valuable skill teaches us peace is not a number on the scale, true peace is being content with the present. When we engage with opposite action, we find freedom by rebelling against instant gratification for the reward of lasting fulfillment, going against the grain of instinct toward valued living.
Join me in this rebellion. I swear…the water is fine.
Written by Aubrey Perin, MA, Primary Counselor at Focus Treatment Centers, Chattanooga, TN