This article was originally published on DBTSelfHelp.com as part of the series “Well Said.”
Many of us are too hard on ourselves when we struggle through our first Dialectical Behavior Therapy experience and feel like we just can’t do it. I have personally been through DBT three times since 1999 and I’m currently in a DBT group that is focused on DBT for the disabled. These skills are not easy. It takes time and practice and, I think, perseverance over a long period of time. Like many of you, I rarely thought about the DBT skills before some event occurred in which I could use them because I was too caught up in the event. So most of the time I was looking back at what happened and this is often what I wrote in my homework. Over time, studying and re-studying the skills, I could look back at the event and see that I was improving my use of the skills even when I wasn’t aware of having used them.
I am a person who has been closely associated with DBT and others in DBT since 2001 simply because of the website. It hasn’t been until the last 2 years or so that I find that I actually think of the skills before an event and consciously choose to use a specific skill. Even then, I can’t maintain constant awareness of the skills and the moment. Like everyone else, I get caught up in my life and the events that occur and sometimes I make ineffective choices – although usually unintentionally because I always try to do my best and I can only know what I know in this moment. Maybe I’ll learn something today that will alter my response to a similar circumstance tomorrow. Armed with more understanding, I might choose better, but not necessarily “perfectly.” We have to peel away the skin of the onion in layers and we’ll probably cry a little in the process.
I think the key to becoming more accustomed to DBT skills is mindfulness. This is because practicing mindfulness is practicing being aware of the moment – of being able to observe without judgment. But even in this, think about it in perspective. Marsha Linehan didn’t just pull DBT out of her hat. These skills/ideas/practices have been there for a very long time in other forms like Eastern practices and Cognitive therapies. What she did was to remove the religious dogma from various practices and compile them into a testable psychological format.
Mindfulness has been the primary practice of Eastern monks for centuries. It is considered to be the path to enlightenment. Consider this ancient story: One day a prince was walking down the road and encountered the Buddha. He took the opportunity to ask him, “What is it that your monks do?” The Buddha replied, “We breathe, we walk, we eat.” “Well,” replied the prince, “we do exactly the same things. Why are you so special?” The Buddha said, “Because when we breathe, we know we are breathing, when we walk, we know we are walking and when we eat, we know we are eating.” So all the things you may have heard about the difficulty of becoming enlightened really comes from the practice of mindfulness. The more you can be aware of what you do, how you behave and how you think, the easier it becomes to gain perspective, which means to not take things so personally and to separate who you are from the situation/circumstance occurring. After all, how can you change your behavior if you don’t know what your behavior is.
After mindfulness, the next most important thing to success with DBT, in my opinion, is self-compassion and self-validation. Most of the people with a diagnosis of BPD (and many others) come from traumatic, invalidating family situations. You have likely grown up thinking it is normal to doubt yourself, to ignore your instincts and to believe that what other people think of you is the measure of your value rather than what you think of yourself. Well, when you hear the same thing over and over again it becomes a part of your sub-conscious (similar to brainwashing). It will probably be a new thing for you to start forgiving yourself and comforting that hurt little child inside. The child had no choice but to attend to and to take in what the authority figures told him or her. As an adult, you can make new choices but only with time and perseverance and a lot of desire to change, to live a life more worth living.
Many of the people in DBT will not be able to ultimately internalize the skills because even if their behavior is harmful, they are used to it and would prefer it over the unknown. It is the rare individual who can complete integrate all of the skills into their daily lives. It’s like obtaining enlightenment.
How do you get to orchestra hall? Practice, practice, practice. Take a deep breath, relax and do one thing at a time. How do you feel in this moment? Where are your hands? Can you become aware of the pressure of the surface beneath your fingertips? How deep is your breath? Pay attention for a few seconds. You might continue to think of many other things that pass in your mind. That’s okay. That’s the way you’ve always behaved. Thinking is not good or bad. It just is. Observe it and watch it pass away. In the meantime, can you feel the surface beneath your body? What sounds are around you? You see, it is this kind of practice at observing the moment that the Buddha was talking about. Right now, at this moment, I observe the feel of the keyboard under my fingertips because I’m not just typing an email, I know that I’m typing an email.
Don’t get down on yourself for having difficulty letting go of thoughts or staying in the moment. The measure of success in mindfulness is simply to show up. If you practice, you are successful. Congratulate yourself for practicing. You have just taken one more step forward to a better life.
One last thing I want to mention is about the traditional myth of the seeker who climbs to the mountaintop to ask the guru the meaning of life. I’m here to tell you that the gurus are gone and the mountaintops are full because how easy would it be to never interact with anyone and to have others constantly taking care of your needs to be enlightened? When there’s nothing in the environment to challenge you, it becomes easy to be in the moment. The reality is that we live in a world of constant interactions and busyness. We constantly have to deal with life. How cool would it be to take a few months off and hang out on the mountaintop? Cool, but unlikely. So go easy on yourself. Practice being mindful when you remember to do so and when you observe that you’re not being mindful, practice it again. It gets easier.
Lisa Dietz is the founder of DBT Self-Help. A graduate of DBT herself, Lisa has worked hard in the BPD and DBT communities to make the treatment accessible to all.