Standing in my kitchen I stared at the pantry filled with food. I already knew what was on each shelf. I’d been standing there for what felt like hours. This was the third time I’d opened it over the past half an hour. My stomach growled angrily as I closed the cabinets again. Thinking to myself, “I just don’t want to eat,” I froze. The eating disorder screamed at me to just go to bed instead of eating. It hissed, “It’s too late to eat. You’ve already had enough food today. You can’t possibly need any more calories.” Thankfully, the tool of opposite action popped into my head.
What is Opposite Action?
Originally a DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) skill, opposite action is exactly what it sounds like. It means consciously doing the opposite behavior of what your impulse in that moment is.
In the framework of eating disorders, opposite action can more clearly be described as doing the direct opposite behavior of what your eating disorder wants you to do.
This tool can be used in many areas of eating disorder recovery. The obvious one – with actual eating- can feel a little tricky. Often in recovery we hear multiple voices in our heads. When using opposite action, you first must determine which voice is your wise self, and which is the eating disorder. Then act in opposite of the ed voice’s commands.
In my above example, the eating disorder commanded me to ignore my hunger and go to sleep. My wise self understood this would be harmful to my relationship with my body. And that I would likely wake up in the middle of the night even hungrier. But the ed voice wanted me to take the easy way out. To ignore my hunger and go to bed.
Many times opposite action means EATING when the disorder wants you to restrict.
By opening up the cabinet, finding the most filling and satisfying snack I could, and allowing myself to eat it before bed I accomplished many things. I challenged the food rules that kept me trapped in my disorder for years. More importantly, I nourished my body and met her needs for energy. And I reinforced that she can trust me to take care of her, improving my relationship with my body. Also, I made it more likely I’d get a good night’s sleep by going to bed satisfied and satiated. Perhaps the greatest benefit of practicing opposite action is by listening to my wise voice, the ed voice lost a little bit of strength.
Opposite Action with Exercise and Rest
The tool of choosing opposite action can be used across many other areas of recovery in addition to eating. Take exercise and rest as another example. When I feel anxiety building up in my body because I haven’t worked out “enough” the eating disorder tells me I must go for a run. Opposite action means I choose a different activity that is more sedentary. Maybe I read a book instead, call a friend, turn on the TV, or pull out my journal. When the eating disorder screams at me to move my body more, opposite action means sitting still, in the discomfort. Trusting it will pass and I will be okay.
Or perhaps the eating disorder tells me I must not rest, even if I have an injury or am overcoming an illness. Opposite action means finding the most comfortable blanket to cuddle up with on the couch and relaxing with a book or my favorite Netflix show. It means allowing my body the rest it needs even when the eating disorder is screaming at me to keep going.
Putting It Into Action
Opposite action seems simple, right? And it makes sense. So what’s the catch? Well, there is no catch. In theory it makes sense and IS simple. The hard part is putting it into action. Catching yourself when you’re considering following ED’s demands and implementing this tool is they key. Reading about it and understanding it will only get you so far. You can’t learn to ride a bike by simply reading about how to do it. It takes practicing over and over. Facing the fear of falling, and even getting some skinned knees. But with persistence, practice, and patience, you can learn to ride a bike by doing it. The very same thing is true for practicing opposite action. And like learning to ride a bike, this practice also becomes easier over time.
So the next time your eating disorder yells at you to restrict- choose the most delicious thing you can to eat.
When you hear the whisper to keep working out an extra XX minutes, stop and allow yourself to rest. If the eating disorder tells you to isolate because no one really cares about you, pick up the phone and reach out to a friend. And when your ED lies that you’re not good enough to go for a dream, dive into it anyway. Whatever the eating disorder commands you to do, choose the exact opposite action. Even when it feels uncomfortable and scary. Because THIS is the way towards recovery and healing.