The Benefits of Acting “Contrary”

Liza Johnston, APC, NCC, MS • 404-757-3250

We all assume that acting contrary is a sign of obstinance, or we think it means that one is oppositional by nature or choice. We usually would prefer that those around us are not acting contrary.

However, there are times when acting to do the opposite can bring us real relief; it can change our mood for the better and put us on a path moving forward. How can this be?

When we are feeling fear, we have an impulse to hide, flee, or even be aggressive. We might be living under great fear during this last year and a half due to Covid and all its inherent risks. By continuing to isolate or be aggressive to those who do not share our views, we are resting in this place of fear. Instead, we can examine our values for our life and decide to engage with the world using health precautions that allow us to escape our isolation and anger.  We take on some risk, but we gain a sense of empowerment by facing our fears in a healthy way. 

This example of “acting the opposite” to our emotions actually gives us the ability to lift the weight of fear and change our experiences.

The second example of this phenomenon relates to the feeling of sadness. At times when we are sad, we want to stay away from other people, and we have low energy. To counter this tendency, we can join with others. Sometimes just going and reading downstairs with our family, going to a coffee shop with a friend, or talking on the phone to a trusted loved one can offer substantial relief to our feeling of dejection.

With the strong emotion of anger, we feel the need to fight back, and we can have a burst of aggressive energy that is hard to calm. At times this desire to fight and this substantial energy can get us in real trouble because we end up acting impulsively in ways we later regret. We might send a text we later are embarrassed about. We might start drinking alcohol.  We might even yell at a loved one for no reason. 

One way to counter these aggressive impulses due to anger is to act the opposite, to show love to someone, not necessarily the one we are angry at, but to someone else in our orbit. We can engage in friendly chitchat with the assistant at the bank who is not responsible for the incredibly long wait we just had on the phone trying to reach someone.  We can hug our spouse when we have just had a meeting at work that felt threatening. These acts of kindness can help us move into a better frame of mind where we can think more logically about what is causing our anger.

Finally, how do we handle the feeling of guilt? Guilt can be helpful when it lets us know that we might want to change something we did, but it can be harmful when we cannot let it go or when we feel guilty even if we have done nothing “wrong.” Our gut reaction when we are feeling guilty is to hide it away and not tell anyone about it. Alternatively, we can talk about what we did to someone we trust, or when we have done something that we truly regret, we can just apologize. By opening admitting our mistaken deed to someone else, we can move on and let the guilt go.

Though it might sound counterintuitive, sometimes the best move is to act the opposite to a painful feeling. This “opposite action” can either grant us real comfort or help us turn on our more logical side when it is needed. Try it out!

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