The New Spark I’ve Found in Practicing DBT Again
“If you practice love, willingness, and acceptance you too will be transformed.” — Marsha Linehan
I am in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) classes. And this time, there is a special new “spark.” A light. And I follow the lights, skills, every day. DBT was created by Marsha Linehan, originally designed to treat people at high risk of suicide and self-injury, and then became the first evidence-based treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT has since been applied to treating a variety of psychiatric conditions, and there is even a recent book published called “Coping with Cancer: DBT Skills to Manage Emotions and Balance Uncertainty with Hope” by Elizabeth Cohn Stuntz and Marsha Linehan.
The application of DBT skills is reaching beyond the treatment of BPD and is helpful for many others. This is not the first time in my life I am learning, practicing, and engaging intentionally with DBT skills. Due to several stressors this past year, and encountering setbacks, I made the choice recently, to go back to intentional, skillful DBT work. My classes continue for the next nine months.
Even as I felt triggered so often this year, I am still at a very different place now than the first time I learned about DBT. I am not self-harming, or constantly in the ER with extreme suicidal ideation. And yet, I am finding this DBT journey to be very helpful, and to carry a new spark, a light, to meet a need I have, and to make a significant difference in my life. One thing that continues to come up for me is the realization I believe that DBT skills are truly skills for everyone, in that, I think we can all benefit from these skills to help create lives of meaning, tolerate distress, and to treat ourselves and others with kindness and compassion.
“DBT skills are life skills.” — Marsha Linehan, “Building a Life Worth Living“
Whether we live with a mental health or physical health diagnosis or not, or meet criteria for borderline personality disorder or not, we all live life — and life carries both struggle and pain, joy and beauty, and the need for balancing acceptance and change, which is core to DBT. We can all benefit, I believe, from DBT skills.
“We are all doing the best we can, and we can all do better. We can be doing our best and be motivated for change.” — Marsha Linehan
Many of us with BPD face challenges that may appear unique to having intense emotions, and these skills do transform and save lives of many people with BPD. But we all have a chance to better accept, grow, and be transformed from learning DBT skills.
I think about the skills all the time lately. I paint them, I make them out of play dough, carefully moulding the word, the skill, “radical acceptance” with my hands, engaging with skill through thought, and body, and soul. When I open my eyes in the morning, I am thinking of which skills I get to try to first. And this is exciting! For example, while having my coffee this morning, it was a chance to first practice the mindfulness skills: observe, describe. I noticed my coffee, I labeled what I was observing with my senses. I noted the color, the smell, the temperature. I labeled it using language — the coffee is the color brown, it feels hot, tastes smooth. I smelled the scent, caramel. This was also a moment to practice self-soothing, another DBT skill that is hugely important for me. This simple coffee was a moment in my day to practice skills.
Many people have coffee in their day, how can you have a mindful cup today? Will this be helpful for you, too, to ground yourself to the present moment, to self-soothe?
DBT skills have in a sense become, what feels like a “religion” for me, at this time in my life. The skills feel like ritual. I meet God in wise mind practice. Wise mind is included in the DBT Skills Training Manual from a spiritual perspective, too. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be. Wise mind as contemplative practice- mindfulness, centering prayer, contemplative action, the sacred, core of our being, God, Allah, are a few examples.
Each day, I am constantly thinking of what skills I can use to engage intentionally in building a life worth living, maintaining relationships, tolerating distress. Linehan is clear in several sources that DBT is not a suicide prevention program, even as it was designed for suicidal people, and many people with BPD have experienced suicidality. DBT is a life worth living program. I find more intentional practices daily are helping bring me closer to building a life worth living after many setbacks this last year.
After my morning coffee, I now do a a short dance. My dance to a specific song has become a chance to practice the skill of “participate.” I throw myself completely into the moment, going with the flow. These are ways we can practice the skill participate. Every moment is not just a moment, it is an opportunity, a chance for encountering light, for getting in touch with the “DBT spark” I am feeling and knowing differently this time around.
Not every skill is easy to use. Willingness has become a favorite for me, but it is not easy. Willingness is letting go of the attachment to “me me me;” letting go of trying to fix every situation. Willingness is saying “yes” to the moment. It first involves observing willfulness, labeling it, experiencing it. And radically accepting, “I am feeling willful.” It then involves turning my mind to acceptance and willingness, and then changing my body by using willing hands, this means unclenching my fists, turning palms upward — this can be done anywhere, sitting or standing. Willing hands is a skill that feels hard at first, and then it is freeing! I feel anger leak out of my body.
We all have situations, feelings, and pain we encounter in life where it seems unbearably hard to accept the moment and say, “yes.” Anger urges can feel really strong. Anger and resistance to acceptance can happen anywhere, and the situation may “fit the facts” as we say in DBT. It may make sense and be understandable, but it is often not effective to act on anger. For example, perhaps anger may arise if someone cuts ahead of you in line, or you are waiting for what feels like forever on hold on the phone. Or someone yells at you as you accidentally cut them off driving. Or maybe anger is what you feel if you believe you are experiencing rejection, I feel anger when I think someone is criticizing me.
Lately, I practice willing hands a lot when faced with anger and a resistance to accept the moment; it is transforming my life! Your hands communicate to your brain; your body connects to your mind. This does not mean that I am saying criticism and rejection feel good, it means I accept in the moment I am noticing anger, and refusing to accept reality. I notice urges to lash out, and I recognize acting on angry feelings is usually not effective. So, I choose to use a skill instead. I use “willing hands.”
DBT skills are grouped into four modules: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. And within each module there are various skills that are focused on either acceptance or change. DBT is about the dynamic balance of acceptance and change, which truly is a part of all our lives, whether you live with borderline personality disorder or not. Validation of self and others is a major component of DBT skills. Many people with BPD have experienced traumatic invalidation, but I think most people know what it feels like to feel invalidated, and that invalidation feels painful.
When learning DBT skills, we practice balancing opposites that can both be true. For example:
“I can feel mad at someone and still love and respect the person.”
“I can disagree with the rules and follow the rules.”
“I can be by myself and be connected to others.”
“ I can accept myself the way I am and still want to change some things about myself.”
I believe these interpersonal effectiveness skills are fundamental to truly any healthy relationship and healthy community functioning. DBT is known to have changed and saved lives of people with borderline personality disorder, I have heard this from many of my borderline peers, and I believe that too. I am grateful for that. Although, I believe these skills can be helpful for all people. As Marsha Linehan says, “They are life skills and if you practice love, willingness, and acceptance, you too will be transformed.” Many of us often think therapies and treatment are only for “sick” people, in reality, we are all human and we are in life together.
Maybe DBT skills will be that light for you, too, whoever and wherever you are.
Getty image by simonapilolla