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How Embracing 'And' Transformed My Mental Health

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I have wounds “and” gifts. My day can be sunny “and” it can rain. I experience faith “and” I have doubt. Acceptance “and” change. There are things I accept, and others I work very hard to change.

I am a person with borderline personality disorder (BPD) traits “and” I am someone who works full-time in a helping profession. I can experience painful emotions “and” I choose not act on them. I am continually doing “the dance with acceptance and change.” They (acceptance and change) are with me from the moment my feet hit the floor each morning until my eyes close at night. Acceptance. And. Change. These words have had a meaningful impact for me, and I hope they can help you too, wherever you are in your own journey.

Marsha Linehan is the creator of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). In 2011, she “came out” as being one who struggled with the very disorder she created a treatment for, borderline personality disorder (BPD). Against many odds, Linehan was able to leave institutional life in a psychiatric hospital and live a life different from the one that many believed she would be stuck with indefinitely (“Building a Life Worth Living, a Memoir,” Marsha Linehan). Linehan went on to develop DBT in hopes to help others. In her memoir published in January 2020, “Building a Life Worth Living,” she describes how this was her calling and her promise to God:

“God where are you?” I whispered each day… but I survived. And toward the end of my time at the institute, I made a promise to God, a vow, that I would get myself out of hell and that once I did, I would find a way to get others out too. DBT was, and is, my best effort to date at keeping that vow.” (p. 7)

Linehan shares that she did not want to die having not shared her story (p. 4). Many of us who have struggled, and do struggle, with mental illnesses or addictions, are beginning to see the value and hope in sharing our stories bravely, authentically and unapologetically. We are here. We lived. We are real people who have struggled “and” use our pain to help others. We are wounded healers. And we are not ashamed.

Linehan says that two things make DBT unique. The first is the dynamic balance between acceptance of oneself and ones situation in life on the one hand, and embracing change towards a better life on the other. Dialects means the balance of opposites and the coming to a synthesis. (“Building a Life Worth Living,” p. 7-8).

DBT is not the only treatment I have done. And today DBT is not only used to treat BPD. Many of the skills in DBT can help all of us in some way. DBT skills are life skills (“Building a Life Worth Living,” p. 9). I do not credit my own recovery journey entirely to DBT but this behavioral treatment and the skills within it has still had a significant and meaningful role in my life. When I first brought myself to therapy eight years ago, I immensely struggled with what many of us know as “black/white thinking, all or nothing thinking, polarized thoughts.” The therapist told me we would work on “balanced thinking.” I was not initially open to this idea. In my mind he was “wrong,” “ idealistic.” I quit therapy at times because I was so resistant to the idea of balanced thinking. I now see that this therapist was actually encouraging dialectical thinking and knew that it would make a difference in my life. He saw beyond the moment I was in, and thankfully he was patient and strong enough to advocate for my recovery despite my own self-doubt.

After years of psychotherapy, including learning to use dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills, I have learned to embrace the power of “and” in my life. This embrace did not happen overnight, nor was it easy. My journey with “and” dancing with “acceptance and change” was not a one time decision; this has taken practice, work and includes setbacks. Often when I feel very triggered, my immediate thought leans towards the extreme, all-or-nothing phrases will pop into my mind such as “this is never ending,” or “I am all bad.” However, these days, I can shift to “and” much easier and quicker than ever before. I am more able to apply the skills I have learned and remind myself that l have beauty and good in me too. I am not “all bad” and I can make a mistake. We are all human, we can feel painful urges “and” not act on them. The day can be sunny “and” it can rain. Dialects allow opposites to coexist: you can be weak and you can be strong, you can feel happy and you can feel sad (“Building a Life Worth Living,” p. 237).

This embrace of “and” has helped me to live with and through painful urges and thoughts, and to get to the side where not only are the pains manageable but they are used to help others in their own journey. Embracing “and” has helped me in my marriage, at work and in handling setbacks. Dialectical thinking has also encouraged my personal Christian faith to move naturally in ways that feel healthy and hopeful, where faith *and* doubt can be together, side by side, and coexist. I can forgive others “and” it can be really hard to trust those who have hurt me. There is space in my faith for hope and uncertainty, wounds and gifts. Acceptance and change. I see myself as someone who has grown kinder and more compassionate to myself, and to others since engaging with DBT skills. I am better able to see us all as a mixture of both our wounds and unique wonderful gifts and abilities. We all make mistakes and we all have opportunities to learn, grow, give and love.

I see choosing “and” as a brave choice. Acceptance feels hard. And so does change. Although, I can certainly say this dance with acceptance and change has become easier over time, and with practice, it feels more natural, and my dance flows much smoother.

“And” has allowed me to see that I can live with BPD traits “and” use my past, mistakes and wounds to be healing for others. Every day my dance with “acceptance and change” surprises me, inspires me “and” challenges me. I am thankful for those like Dr. Marsha Linehan who have chosen to be brave with their stories, accepting the risk of sharing their true selves, and working hard to create change and challenge stigma.

We need examples of those who have found meaning in their lives after chaos, and who use their struggle to help others, however that looks. May your day be filled with sun “and” may you see potential beauty in the rain.

Getty image via Finn Hafemann

Originally published: December 7, 2020
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