It’s amazing that DBT can break down something that I’ve struggled with tremendously in such a simple manner. In my last group session we began our introduction to interpersonal effectiveness and examined the core concepts here:
- Be skillful in getting what you want and need from others
- Build relationships and end destructive ones
- Walk the middle path
These are all different approaches to handling conflict. Initially it sounded manipulative to me to think about ‘getting what you want’ from people, but our group leader made it sound so normal. Why would we want to be involved in relationships where we are left feeling unsatisfied and our needs aren’t met?
While the ideal is meeting all of the aforementioned points, sometimes that’s just not possible. Think about abusive relationships or even simply situations where your values don’t align with those of others. DBT suggests that when this happens we clarify our priorities.
The above excerpt is from DBT Skills Training: Handouts and Worksheets (Second Edition) by Marsha Linehan (the founder of DBT). This book is essentially the DBT bible and is used by the majority of DBT groups; even my former psychologist who was not DBT trained had a copy of this.
The interpretation I was offered at group talked about situations where you simply can’t see eye to eye with the person in question. You’re generally left with two options; adjust your expectations if you can or get out. I feel like compromise is always the most effective course of action but the harsh reality is this won’t always be possible.
This is going to get a bit personal, but the only examples I have to draw on are my own. I have, several times over the past year in fact, felt shamed into keeping silent. Whether intentionally or not, the message I have quite clearly been given is to keep quiet and not let certain people in my life know when their behaviour has upset me. This expectation is consistent regardless of if my reaction is rational, related to a mental health trigger, resulting in severe pain and suicidal ideation or all of the above.
This outlook is quite simply something I cannot make peace with. I truly believe if my actions have caused someone distress I would like to be aware of this, I would like the opportunity to either correct my behaviour, or in the case that correction may not be warranted, comfort and reassure the individual. I am not trying to be a martyr and I know I am far from being one, but my core beliefs are that progress comes from building more dialogue relating to mental health and wellbeing in this society. Not only is burying our heads in the sand unhelpful, but expecting someone with emotional dysregulation, severe social anxiety and impulse control issues to be able to bottle their emotions in is not realistic.
In this case I need to prioritise: I would be sacrificing my self-respect and my needs if I were to concede this point of view and I highly doubt I would be able to live like this even if I wanted to. I am sensitive and I have a deep longing for genuine connection and communication, this is who I am. Could I communicate in a more effective manner and learn to regulate my emotions more? Absolutely and I already feel like I have made tremendous progress here. But I will not and can not change the core of my being for anyone.
Something our group leader said really struck me the other night. So simply she said “we need to put ourselves and others on equal footing”. In this age of self-care we are making so much progress as a society towards wellbeing and respect of mental health issues, but these ideals can get warped as a justification for narcissistic behaviour. How many times have you heard the line “I just gotta look after myself”? While self-care is important and should be our top priority, when it is at the expense of others and comes without compromise I’m not sure we can put it under the innocent banner of self-care.
DBT teaches us that we are all equal and that no one can ask you to put your needs and self-respect last, no matter how they try to dress it up. DBT teaches us to compromise, we discover our values and ask that our needs are met in a non-destructive manner.
If my situation sounds familiar or if you find yourself in a relationship where you are being asked to sacrifice your needs I urge you to clarify your priorities; the process has been a real eye opener for me.