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How I've Used Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Improve My Relationships

Relationships have never been my strong suit. In fact, I can’t think of a single friendship or romantic connection that came easily. I constantly fear abandonment, avoid conflict at any cost and I go to extreme efforts to garner attention. These behaviors cause me to appear as a clingy doormat, which ultimately pushes people away.

Once I received my borderline personality disorder (BPD) diagnosis two years ago, I learned my struggle is actually quite common for many people with BPD. People say we walk the line of “I hate you, don’t leave me” or “You’re leaving me, I’m going to bombard you” — and I feel those phrases in my veins. It’s no coincidence the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)” specifically lists, “a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships” as one of the nine diagnostic criteria for this personality disorder.

It’s listed because it’s true: People with BPD often struggle with relationships.

Through dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), I learned many skills to help enhance my interpersonal connections. I learned how to create space for both my feelings and the feelings of others because they can exist simultaneously. I discovered ways to read situations and social encounters with heightened awareness so I could connect with people.

But most importantly, I learned how to effectively communicate my needs in a calm, respectful way.

One of DBT creator Marsha Linehan’s many acronyms is DEARMAN. This specific skill falls under interpersonal effectiveness and is intended to help you get your needs met. By using this acronym, you describe the situation, express your feelings, assert yourself and reinforce your stance while remaining mindful, confident and willing to negotiate, if needed.

In other words, DEARMAN outlines a script for you that leaves little room for passive-aggressive communication. It also sets the stage for you to convey your true feelings, which can be a struggle when you fear abandonment. And although it may sound like tons of work, once you get the hang of things, you can easily plan out your interaction with someone while effectively using this skill.

Most recently, I used the DEARMAN skill to explain why I needed to stop participating in a specific therapy group. I knew the environment was negatively impacting my mental health, but I worried expressing this would end in a messy, heated altercation. So after I weighed the pros and cons of withdrawing from the group, I sat down and planned out a script for myself. I felt my anxiety drop as I wrote everything out, but I trembled with nervous anticipation.

Much to my surprise though, the group facilitator received my thought-out, skillful explanation well. They ultimately applauded me for using my voice and effectively conveying my needs. They said everyone’s journey looks different and they appreciated my willingness to openly share. I couldn’t believe the outcome of this conversation and I knew it would have looked completely different had I not planned my words using the DEARMAN skill.

When I left, I not only felt calm, but I beamed with pride as I realized just how effectively I communicated my needs.

Since starting my recovery journey and practicing DBT skills like DEARMAN, I have noticed a significant improvement in all the relationships in my life. I find myself pausing more, exploding less and actively participating in conversations. Although I’ve by no means mastered DBT or fully recovered from BPD, I feel more positive about the overall direction of my life. I may always battle BPD but I know with well-being practiced interpersonal skills, I can maintain relationships and feel an overall sense of stability in my life.

Getty Images: PATCHARIN SAENLAKON