Emotions can get the best of most of us.
Who hasn’t “seen red” when angry, or felt great sadness. That’s just a part of living this life. For some, though, emotions can be overwhelming and seemingly uncontrollable. Whether hard-wired from birth or affected by trauma, these people feel emotional pain more strongly than others and have a difficult time coping with life. As a result, they can harm themselves and others and often turn to drugs or addictive behavior to face the day.
What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy?
In 1993, Marsha Linehan developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, to help people who become “swept away” by their emotions. She found that, with borderline personality types and others with intense emotions, trying to stop your feelings does not work. In these cases, an enhanced version of Cognitive Behavior Therapy was needed. “Dialectical” is to balance and compare opposing thoughts. She found “radical acceptance” of things as they are, combined with its opposite, awareness of things that need to be changed helped her clients. These people could not control their emotions no matter how hard they tried. But adding acceptance to active therapy techniques helped when nothing else would.
Radical Acceptance means that you concede to whatever happens in your life without resistance. It is saying YES to life exactly as it is right now. That means ALL things, from tragic to the trivial are okay just as they are.
Suppose you are in a traffic jam and are running late. You could become angry and anxious, honking your horn and lashing out verbally. Emotional reactions could make you tired and frazzled and not perform well when you finally get to your destination. With radical acceptance, however, you would think, “there is nothing I can do about this. I will get there when I get there.” Instead of falling prey to negative emotions, accepting the situation makes it more tolerable. Your mind is calmer and you may be more prepared when you get there.
While it is difficult to accept things that you do not like or feel are unfair, it is far more difficult to fight them. Resisting pain brings more pain.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy utilizes three critical concepts, called “The Three A’s.” The first concept is awareness. This is also often called “mindfulness.” DBT stresses the importance of finding gratitude in the present moment. Thoughts of past and future, along with the guilt and worry that go with them, are minimized. Acceptance is the second important tenet. With Dialectical Behavior Therapy, clients are taught to accept the way things are right now, even if they don’t like the circumstances very much. An affirmation they use is ”this is the way it needs to be right now.” With radical acceptance comes a new attitude. The final “A” of DBT is action. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is used to pinpoint and counteract negative thought patterns. Here, clients learn positive ways to actively cope with distress. Healthy distractions like helping others and doing things that are pleasurable can help people distance themselves from the emotion. Done together, the Three A’s of DBT help those that have deep emotional pain to be present in the moment, to accept situations exactly as they are, and to take appropriate healthy actions to cope.
DBT was initially designed to help those with borderline personality disorder. In the years since its inception, it has been found to help those with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and addiction issues. During emotional distress, clients learn to pause, observe, and regulate their response. With practice, they respond to life situations differently. A new positive outlook comes with mindfulness. Radical acceptance helps us to stop fighting the way things are. Healthy new coping strategies help us to move focus from emotions and instead practice healthy self-care and service to others. In time, DBT can instill a newfound self-respect, something missing for many drug and alcohol addicts. Negative emotions no longer rule us and there is no need to cause harm to self or others, or self-medicate to cope with life.