We had our weekly “how to keep your shit together” class last Wednesday. We are currently completing a unit on emotion regulation, which basically centers on what to do when an emotion is so big that it needs to be reined in. The list of emotions that need regulating from time to time don’t include things like contentment. Instead, the list reads partly like the list of the Seven Deadly Sins with a surprise or two added: Jealousy, envy, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, guilt, shame, and LOVE, yes love. (Think of those times you may have had to break off a friendship because it was unhealthy.)

An emotion only lasts 30-40 seconds. Can you believe that? That’s not a very long time. They seem to last longer, sometimes hours or days, due to our response to them. If we are angry and start yelling, the yelling is going to keep the anger refiring in our brains. If we are sad and keep thinking hopeless and helpless thoughts, we also keep the sadness going.

We learned a particular emotion regulation skill, which is called, opposite action. It basically means finding a way to act in a way that is opposite to how your feelings prompt you to act. So if you are angry, instead of lashing out, you might be just a little bit nice by saying calmly, “I need to take a break from this conversation”, and leaving the room to calm yourself down. If you are feeling ashamed, it might mean that instead of isolating yourself, you go out in public and behave as if you have not violated whatever social norm your feelings are telling you that you have violated.

Opposite action is used when an emotional response does not line up with the facts of the situation or when our emotions are so high as to prevent us from functioning effectively. In respect to the former, have you ever felt guilty about something even though you’d done nothing wrong, but figured that you must have done SOMETHING because you felt guilty? That’s an example of an emotional response not lining up with the facts.

Opposite action also requires taking it all of the way. It means not only behaving in an opposite way but also making sure your nonverbal communication, your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are opposite. Yes, this means faking it and there’s even the expression, “Fake it ’til you feel it.”

The acting part of this may rub people the wrong way. Personally, I kind of think about it like when we teach children to smile and thank their auntie with apparent sincerity when given a gift that they already have or don’t like. There are things we fake in order to prevent hurting other people. If we can use opposite action to disrupt the patterns we have of negative thoughts and behaviors, we can prevent ourselves from hurting our own feelings or of others. So this kind of faking makes sense to me.

It’s also kind of like a job interview. We may really want the job or we may not really want it. We may feel really nervous or unworthy. We may be struggling financially. But we put on our best face, stand up straight, act cordial and confident, and give a firm handshake. We act as though we like the person we are being interviewed by and are excited about the prospect of the job. And sometimes in the course of the interview as we learn more about the position and we may even start having some real enthusiasm or interest.

Everyday is like an interview with life. Each day I will work for jobs like compassion and  joy.