When We Know Too Much

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of being a guest on Moments of Clarity, a Mental Health themed radio show based out of Florida. If you’re so inclined, you can listen to the episode here.

A big theme in our discussion was the ways in which having an intellectual understanding of a topic can actually work against us in recovery. More than that, it can serve as a defense mechanism to protect us from having to do the real hard work of feeling. But how can that be? How can having the ability to step back and intellectualize a situation possibly be a negative in the healing process?

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We like to think we know an awful lot. Scratch that, and let’s just leave it at we like to think a lot. Full stop. Sometimes, what we think about the specifics can obscure our view of the whole situation. For example, did you notice how you can see me and my messy living room reflected in the whiteboard above or were you focused on the equation? A stretch of an analogy? Maybe you’re right – but my high school physics teacher would give me an A for effort, I think.

This is a topic with which I am intimately familiar. Surprisingly enough, knowing “too much” is one of my ingrained and most frequently used defense mechanisms. My husband and I recently began couple’s counseling and, at our first meeting, we were both called out by the therapist on our tendency to over-rationalize and over-analyze a situation, to the detriment of actually engaging with it. We take our “knowledge” of what’s happening and use it to avoid understanding the impact of our actions on each other and getting in touch with the emotions we are both having in a given moment. The fact is, we both struggle with emotional intimacy and our tendency toward intellectualism protects us from having to “go there” with each other. Through our experiences growing up, we both learned that exposing emotions was a surefire way to be berated, targeted, and even placed in physical danger. This has been a major hindrance in our ability to communicate and connect, not just with each other, but in general. The habit of stepping back and demonstrating an intellectual understanding of a situation has saved us (up until now) from needing to get to the emotional truth of the situation – which is what any relationship of depth needs to survive.

My marriage is not the only place I have struggled with connecting with my emotions. When I was in the psychiatric unit in January of 2017, I held firm to my identity as a mental health professional for the first three days I was there. In my mind, because I was familiar with the skills being taught in the group therapy sessions, I could not learn anything from them. I knew DBT and CBT and mindfulness techniques. I knew how they applied to life in general and recovery in particular. I understood the nuts and bolts. This mentality prevented me from considering my particular situation, the events which lead to my hospitalization, the immense emotional and psychological pain I was in. I was essentially hiding behind my “book knowledge” in an attempt to save myself from the pain of actually accepting where I was at that moment in my life. In reality, I was in one of the scariest and most vulnerable positions I’ve ever experienced – suicidal and hospitalized with the shambles of my former life crumbled at my feet. It was not until I was willing to at least consider that the things being taught had relevance to my life that I was able to take the first tenuous steps toward recovery. But this has been a slow moving progression.

Vulnerability is the most important component of mental health recovery – allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to honestly report your symptoms, allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to open up and actually do the work of therapy, allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask friends and family for support – and I’ll tell you a little secret: historically, I suck at vulnerability.

You’re reading the words of a woman who once completed an entire grocery order gently inching the cart along while on crutches just to feel less at the mercy of an injured knee. You’re reading the words of a woman who once chose to babysit her little brother a day and a half after a gal bladder removal surgery because she was too stubborn to admit that, yes, she needed to be in bed recovering. You’re reading the words of a woman who spent years in therapy happily giving step-by-step accounts of traumas with a steadfastness and sincerity that prevented the therapist from digging any deeper. You’re reading the words of a woman who sucks at emotional anything.

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The deadbolt was set and locked for this gal! No one was getting in in any meaningful way, and demonstrating an intellectual understanding of mental health meant I didn’t need to expose the messy, emotional truth. 

Over the last two years, though, much to my initial horror and chagrin, my walls of intellectualism have been slowly eroded. It started in the hospital with that tiny step of considering my current situation and the idea that I did, actually, stand to benefit from applying the skills being taught. I unlocked the deadbolt, but the door was still solidly closed. It continued in the partial hospitalization program, where I had a therapist who was obnoxiously good at calling me on my bullshit. Every time I’d say, “I’m fine” or I’d try to minimize symptoms, this woman would actually dig deeper and get me to admit that this or that was bothering me. I’d never experienced a therapist who didn’t take my words at face value before. I was thrown off kilter and, as a result, accidentally cracked the door open a little bit. Then, I started working with my current therapist, and holy cupcakes did my entire paradigm shift!

This was not an over night transformation – in fact, the first year I was meeting with her was crisis stabilization and trust building. I didn’t realize we were building trust at the time, but we definitely were. Once the foundation of trust was laid, this magician of a professional actually got me to feel things. Things I had never felt. Did you know that you can feel an emotion strongly enough to get physically sick? Cause I sure as hell didn’t. Until I did when we were talking about shame one week. Did you know that you can feel anger so intense that your ears ring and your vision blurs? Because I was rather concerned when this started happening in session one day. Now, once a week, I open the door just enough for her to see my face. But, slowly but surely, the door is opening wider and wider.

I’ve learned that simply saying, “that time I watched my mother get beaten was really jacked up and should never have happened.” has been a brilliant coping mechanism I’ve developed over time to prevent myself from feeling the terror, the anger, the sadness, and the shame that I disconnected from when that event (and many like it) happened. What I’ve learned through this journey I’ve been on is that there is true strength in vulnerability and that healing comes only when you allow yourself to feel the things you blocked out. You cannot truly heal from trauma until you’ve processed it, and that necessitates feeling your feelings without judgement. You cannot grow in emotional strength until you are willing to let the intellectual strength take a back seat for a few.

Sometimes, we “know too much”, and, while it’s an effective defense mechanism, it is shutting off an entire section of our lives if we hide behind it.

The effects of this process are no longer limited to therapy, either. I am finding myself increasingly willing and able to be open and honest about my needs in my personal life. I’m slowly learning how to connect with my feelings in a meaningful and productive way that I’ve never felt before. I’ve learned that there is value in intellectualism, but there is just as much value in getting in touch with the emotional side of things. And that connection is worth all of the hard work and discomfort that comes with it.

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Can you relate to this post, or am I some weird outlier? If you can relate, have you considered this before? Have you addressed it? Do you plan to address it?

Agree, disagree, indifferent, confused – I’d love to hear your thoughts, whatever they are! Drop a comment below, or Tweet me @paradichotomy. You can also find me on Facebook  and join the conversation over there! Thanks for reading!

Self-Respect Effectiveness – Keeping Respect for Yourself

Welcome to the third and final portion of our DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness series! In the past two days, we’ve covered the techniques of Objective Effectiveness (DEARMAN) and Relationship Effectiveness (GIVE). Today, we’re going to look at the specifics of the FAST technique, which focuses on maintaining your self respect in conversations, conflict, and relationships.

Have you ever felt pressured in a conversation (or a relationship in general) to compromise yourself to keep someone else happy? I know I have. In the past, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve compromised some of my most important beliefs and convictions to satisfy other people. This happened frequently in my marriage, for one, but has also occurred in other very important relationships in my life.

Setting boundaries and maintaining those relationships while also maintaining my values and beliefs has proven difficult, but I am slowly getting better at in, in large part due to these communication tools. Bullet points and silly acronyms aside, DBT is incredibly valuable and, I believe, relevant to everyone, whether you’re in recovery or not.

Some relationships, though, are simply unhealthy and toxic.

You can usually tell if a relationship is unhealthy based on whether or not you are able to maintain your values, the majority of the time, without being shamed or given a guilt trip. What are your values?

Sometimes, even that question can be difficult to answer. I couldn’t quite articulate most of mine when I was first asked to think about them. But when I was in the Partial Hospitalization Program, I was given a list of over 200 core values and simply asked to circle the ones that most resonated with me. If you need help identifying your core values, here’s a list of over 500 of them!

Once you’ve identified those values, you’re ready to step into the realm of using FAST.

By now, I’m sure you know the drill – it’s bullet point time. (I know, I hate them, too. Stick with me, though, because I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it was valuable knowledge.)

First, the questions to determine if you want to use FAST in any given situation:

  • Regardless of outcome, how do I want to feel about myself after this conversation?
  • What do I have to do to feel that way about myself?

Want some examples of when you use FAST? Here they are!

  • When you want to hold firm to your morals, and leave the conversation feeling that you did
  • When you need to respect your own values and beliefs over other people’s judgement or thoughts on those convictions

OK! Bullet points out of the way!

It’s Christmas Eve and if you’re like me, you may still have some wrapping to do… or all of your wrapping… or shopping… so let’s get FAST out of the way quickly. (See what I did there? Do you?)

Fair – While it is important to be fair to the other person, it is also important to be fair to yourself. Don’t forget to validate your own feelings, along with the feelings of the other person. Validation is a two way street, and even if you’re not getting the same respect you’re giving, you can still be there for your own feelings and give them the acknowledgement they need while also remaining civil.

Apologies – As in NO apologies. Unless you have done something to wrong the other person, don’t apologize. Don’t say sorry for making a request. Don’t say sorry for having an opinion or disagreeing. Don’t say sorry for existing and living your life in a way with which the other person may not agree. Keep apologies out of your body language as well. You have nothing to look ashamed for if you are simply making a reasonable request, setting a boundary, or sharing a different opinion. Nothing at all.

Stick to your values – Your own values. You are not required to invalidate your integrity or morals for anyone. No matter the threats; no matter the judgments, hold your ground. Your integrity is important, and if you compromise it, you will feel shame and guilt afterward which may follow you for a long time.

Truthful – Don’t lie. Don’t minimize or maximize your feelings or the situation. This one can sound a little tricky, but part of sticking with your values and morals is integrity. This can include not exaggerating or making up excuses for your own actions in a conflict, but also not making up excuses for the other person’s behavior.

That’s FAST! I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled immensely with this one. I tend to over apologize and make excuses for the actions and words of other people. I’ve compromised my values based on threats by other people. I’ve invalidated my feelings in order to validate the feelings of others. I’ve had a skewed view of what constitutes healthy give and take in a relationship.

A long while ago, I wrote a post on that topic called Are Your Relationships Healthy?, and in it, I share a tool called the “Relationship Report Card.” If you’re confused as to whether or not your relationship is healthy and respectful or unhealthy and damaging, I suggest looking through that older post. It really helped me figure out which relationships required each of the three techniques we’ve covered these past three days.

I hope you enjoyed this triple header of a series. I know I enjoyed reviewing the skills and getting them out there for you beautiful humans! I’d love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have! Be sure to drop a comment below, Tweet me @paradichotomy, or take a look around the blog’s Facebook page!

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If you’re celebrating, Merry Christmas from Parallel Dichotomy! If you’re not, I hope you are having a wonderful weekend and have been safe and well this holiday season.

In all seriousness, this time of year (Whether you celebrate the holidays or not) can be really rough. If you’re struggling, please reach out to someone.

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***********GIVE, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and all DBT skills were developed by Marsha Linehan. I am not a professional therapist and these skills are not meant as a substitute for therapy. I’m simply sharing things that I have learned and found helpful along the way.

Relationship Effectiveness – Maintaining Important Relationships

Have you ever played an RPG video game? If you have, you know that you have a choice of reaction in each conversation in which your character engages. My favorite of these video games is the Mass Effect series. I loved playing through the entire thing three times. The first time, I played it exclusively being nice and polite to everyone I met, the second time exclusively “renegade”, not giving a single fuck who I pissed off, and the third time a combination of both.

In DBT and life in general, the goal would be the third option. Boundaries are important, but so is being an active, positive participant in your important relationships. The people that you care about deserve your full attention in conversation just as much as you deserve theirs.

Sometimes, giving that attention and remaining positive is very difficult, though. Let’s be real, conflicts occur in every relationship at some point. When you have a disagreement with someone you love, how can you resolve it in a way that saves the strength of the relationship.

We talked about Objective Effectiveness yesterday. Just like it’s important for us to protect our rights and boundaries in a relationship, it’s important that we respect others’ rights and boundaries, too. Have you ever gotten upset at someone you love and walked away, slamming a door on the way? Or maybe someone has refused to do something you request and you’ve said something like, “If you really loved me, you’d…” If these communication styles become a pattern, the relationship may become damaged beyond repair and you may lose someone you care about deeply. But that’s not the goal, right? The goal is healthy communication.

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You know, nice, respectful, kind communication like this. (This is my “little” brother and I, we love each other and we are joking around in this picture. It’s New England for “I love you.”)

In the spirit of avoiding shouting matches with loved ones this holiday season, let’s talk about how we can interact with those people, even through disagreement, without hurling accusations, making threats, or trying to get them to either do or not do something out of a sense of guilt. I think, to an extent, we are all guilty of this at one point or another. We’re in a bad mood and we take it out on someone we love, or someone we care about does something that triggers our fear of abandonment or control and we flip out. I know I am. Our pasts frequently impact our present, and our emotions can feel all consuming. The question, then, is how can we be in relationship with someone without requiring everything be dependent strictly on our thoughts, feelings, and emotions at any given moment? How do we tale the power away from our emotion mind and give it to the middle ground, wise mind?

Guess what? There’s a DBT acronym for that! (OK, there’s a DBT acronym for just about everything, so I guess that’s not a huge revelation.)

For this particular skill set, the acronym is GIVE. Let’s get those bullet points out of the way again so that we can get to the meaning of GIVE. (How seasonally appropriate is that sentence?)

Remember how I said that each section of Interpersonal Effectiveness has associated objectives and questions to help you determine if it’s the right choice in any given situation? Here they are for GIVE:

  • Regardless of the outcome (if I get what I want out of this interaction), how do I want the other person to feel about me when we’re done talking?
  • If I want to keep this relationship, what do I have to do?

In what instances is GIVE most applicable?

  • When you want to act in such a way that the other person is not driven away and continues to like and respect you
  • When you need to balance your short-term goals (like conflict resolution) with the long-term goal of preseving the relationship
  • Simply wanting to improve and maintain a positive relationship with someone

Easy enough, right? Isn’t that our goal in any important relationship? Let’s get right to the specifics of how to achieve those things.

Gentle (be nice, be respectful)  – Don’t attack, don’t make threats, don’t judge, and don’t sneer. If someone you care about is upset, don’t tell them that their feelings are “stupid”, don’t tell them “you should…” or “you shouldn’t…”, express any anger you are feeling with words only. Stick to “I statements” instead of “You statements”. (Don’t say “You’re making me feel angry”, say, “I am angry right now because I feel I am not being heard.”)

Interested – be an active participant in a two way conversation. Listen to hear and understand, not to reply. Listen to the other person’s point of view and their perspective. Respect the other person’s boundaries, too. If they say that they need to have the conversation at a later time, agree and be patient with them.

Validate – with both your words and actions, show that you understand where the other person is coming from, even if you disagree with them. Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective, then say something that shows that you understand. (Example: “I hear you saying that when I said [x], you felt [y].” “I see that this conversation is difficult for you.”)

Easy manner – If you’re both having a hard time, check in with your body. What are you feeling physically and how can you calm any tension? Try to keep your body language relaxed. Throw in some humor if appropriate. Try to keep your emotions in check. If you’re asking for something, uses a “soft sell” instead of a “hard sell”. Don’t demand, don’t be rude, don’t manipulate.

That’s it! That’s GIVE! Like all Interpersonal Effectiveness, this one takes practice and mindfulness, but going into the holiday with this in the forefront of your mind, I hope, will be helpful. It can be hard, especially if emotions are running high, but you and I know that close relationships are worth the hard work of preservation.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you find this information helpful? Drop a comment below, Tweet me @paradichotomy, or hop over to Facebook and join the conversation there! Speaking of Facebook, I spent some time doing a live stream answering some of the questions I’ve received through the blog email and Let’s Talk tab! If you missed it, don’t worry! You can watch it here! If you have questions, please email me at paralleldichotomyblog@gmail.com, hit up the Let’s Talk tab, leave them on the Facebook page, or Tweet them to me, as I’m already prepping for the next live stream. (The next one will come with more warning, I promise.)

Finally, be sure to check back tomorrow for the final installment of this triple header! Tomorrow’s post if all about maintaining your elf respect and values in communication and relationships. Very important information. You won’t want to miss it!

 

***********GIVE, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and all DBT skills were developed by Marsha Linehan. I am not a professional therapist and these skills are not meant as a substitute for therapy. I’m simply sharing things that I have learned and found helpful along the way.

 

 

Objective Effectiveness: Getting What You Want

Welcome to day one of three – a DBT triple header on Interpersonal Effectiveness! While I planned to share this information back in August, I thwarted my own intentions, not only in the blogosphere, but, well, with everything. I think that the end result may have been for the best, though, as I can’t think of a more relevant time to share some skills for holding boundaries, maintaining relationships, and keeping your self respect than the three days leading to the “most wonderful time of the year.” (I recognize that not everyone, some of my readers included, celebrates Christmas, but there are many reasons we find ourselves around family and friends this time of year, and to be completely honest, my family does celebrate Christmas – this is a crash course/ reminder for me as much as you.) Even if you don’t have any holiday plans coming up, good news – this stuff is effective year round!

Now, I did manage to write the introduction to Interpersonal Effectiveness back in August, and I have linked it above for your convenience. But I never got the chance to break down the three areas I was hoping to explore in this overview series. No time like the present, though, right? (No Christmas pun intended.) Speaking of presents, though, I am sincerely apologetic for not getting you the techniques for “getting what you want from people” out in time for your Christmas list writing. Actually, that’s not what this approach is for, but there are going to be a lot of bullet points and I know that that is dull as hell, so I’ve got to squeeze in the mildly funny stuff where I can.

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Holiday Cheer or… something.

 

 

OK! Back to DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness. We’ll be looking at three techniques over the next three days.

The first technique is called D.E.A.R. M.A.N. (Heretofore referred to as DEARMAN, because I don’t want to type all those periods.) If you remember from the original post, there are different types of relationships and different objectives in the dealings within those relationships.

Each of the techniques we’re going to looking at relates to those different types of relationships and the different goals you have within those relationships in the moment.

Each also has associated questions and goals to help you determine if it’s the right fit for what you’re trying to accomplish. For DEAR MAN, you need to go into the situation with a very clear idea of your objectives in the conversation. Here are some good questions to ask yourself before jumping into using this effective communicative approach:

  • What specific result or change do I want from this interaction?
  • What do I have to do to get that result? What will be effective?

Now that you’ve asked yourself those questions, it’s important to know not only why you would want to use this technique, but also why it’s ok to use this technique. It can be really hard to hold firm in boundaries with people. DEARMAN is a little hard hitting. I know that I struggle with this communication tool, because I always feel like a massive jerk when I use it. That said, it does have it’s place. When should you use is? Here are some concrete examples of important goals you have every right to work toward in your relationships:

  • Protecting and receiving your legitimate rights
  • Saying “no” to something that you do not want to do or find unreasonable
  • Getting another to take your opinion seriously
  • Conflict resolution

OK. How are you holding up with the bullet points? I’m already feeling my mind and eyes glaze over a little. Let’s take a quick break. We’ve all been in situations of feeling like our boundaries are being violated. When your relationships are based in a pattern of blurred boundaries, it can be hard to even recognize that you need to stand up and protect your own well being. If you’ve been following the blog since the beginning, you may have a vague recollection of me mentioning something called the “personal bill of rights”. It’s an excellent place to start. If you need a refresher, here they are. IMG_20171217_122024_196 (1).jpg

As you may have deduced, my ever intelligent readers, this is my own copy of these. The highlighted ones are the points that really stood out to me while I was in the Partial Hospitalization Program. All are applicable and different ones may stand out to you. Please ignore my highlights and stars. 

Reading that list, do any jump out at you? Did you read through that list and think “Wouldn’t that be nice?” or “Wow! It never even occurred to me that that was possible!”? If you had that experience, then DEARMAN is going to feel simultaneously uncomfortable and like one of the greatest things you could possibly have in your toolbox.

OK, let’s rip the band-aid off and get the last “list” portion of this post over with. And that, of course, is the meat of DEARMAN. You’re probably wondering what, exactly, does the acronym stand for? I’m so glad you asked!

the DEAR portion is action based (what you do in the conversation.)

Describe the situation. Stick with facts only. Tell the person exactly what you are reacting to. (EX: “You said that we would get together this weekend, but then didn’t respond to my texts to make concrete plans.”)

Express your feelings and opinions. Don’t assume the other person knows how you feel. (EX: “I feel hurt and disrespected and devalued.”)

Assert yourself by asking for what you want or saying no clearly. Don’t assume the other person will figure out what you want. Remember that other people cannot read your mind. (EX: “I would really like it if you would text me back, even if something comes up and you have to cancel plans.”)

Reinforce (reward) the person ahead of time. Explain the positive effects it will have on the relationship. If necessary, also clarify any negative consequences. (EX: “I really like hanging out with you. Our friendship would be stronger if we communicated better.” or “You’ve done this a few times, my time is valuable to me. If I think that we have plans and you don’t tell me we don’t, I’m setting aside time that could be used for something else. I would prefer to use my time wisely, so I need to know if we are getting together so I can plan accordingly.”)

OK, so, that’s the DEAR portion of tonight’s broadcast. What are you thinking and feeling? Do you feel like you are able to do this more often than not in your personal life, or do you feel like this is an area in which you need some practice? Or, like me, have you completely shut down due to anxiety at the mere thought of using something like this? “Assertive” and “Sheila” have not traditionally appeared in the same sentence. I am growing exponentially in this area, though, and that is due, in part, to the Interpersonal Effectiveness skills I’ve learned. So, I promise you that this stuff works!

Let’s hit the MAN breakdown and then we can get to actual application and conversation.

MAN is about how you approach the conversation.

Mindful Don’t get distracted and don’t get off topic. Keep your mind on your goal, and on the reasons you are justified in advocating for yourself. Check in with yourself. This will help you stay calm and collected and effective.

Appear confident. Try not to look at the floor or stammer or whisper. Try to avoid saying things like “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”. Both your tone of voice and body language should convey confidence.

Negotiate This one may seem to counter some of the other points in this strategy, but make sure that you are aware of the areas of give and take going in. Don’t compromise in a way that pushes past your boundaries, but be willing to be flexible within your boundaries. Be willing to give and take a little. Offer solutions to the problem, and ask the other person if they have any thoughts on possible solutions. If you’re saying no, offer to do something else that you are comfortable and/or able to do. Focus on what will work for both of you, but maintain your boundaries.

Alright! That’s the breakdown of DEARMAN.

We all know that holding boundaries can be difficult, especially within ingrained relationships with well-established dynamics, but it is never too late to start holding them. If people in your life are not respecting your personal, legitimate rights as a human, or if you find yourself feeling “Required” to say yes to things that you do not feel able to do (or even things that you do not want to do), you have a right to assert yourself.

DEARMAN is an incredibly assertive technique. But there are still certain ways of implementing that will get you the best end result.

In my personal life, I have someone who will ask the same question repeatedly and try to guilt me into giving the answer he’s hoping for. This has been a pattern in our relationship for over ten years, and, only after learning about DEARMAN was I able to begin to break it.

Do you have a current situation in which someone is violating your boundaries and space? See if this might apply to that situation.

First, I tried to ignore these requests/ threats from this person. When that didn’t work, I tried what’s called the “broken record” response. He would ask, and I would say no. He would guilt, and I would say no. He would start verbally attacking me, and I would say no.

This is where describe comes in. Remember, that’s just facts. So it’s not saying something like, “Are you deaf? I said no!” or “You’re obviously refusing to hear what I’m saying.” Instead, it’s simply, “You’ve been asking me to do this for days, and I’ve told you no several times.”

Then, I expressed feelings. In my situation, I said, “I’m feeling very frustrated by this and I cannot continue this conversation.” It’s important to keep it short and assertive and, no matter how upset you are, to avoid personal attacks. If I’d personally attacked this person, I would be getting pulled into his heated emotions and it would then become a shouting match and all of my interpersonal effectiveness would be out the window. I did not say, “You’re so fucking defensive and aggressive about this! I can’t stand you!” because he would have responded with something like, “Oh, I’m aggressive? You’re the one who can’t {x,y,z}” Can you see how that would have gotten us off topic?

Following that, I asserted myself. I said, “I’ve said no, my answer is not going change. Please don’t ask me again.” Again, I kept it short and to the point. And I did not personally attack him. I did not yell “Shut up and listen to me!” or anything to that effect.

Finally came the reinforcement phase. I said, “We are talking in circles. I know that my answer isn’t going to change and I think that this conversation is becoming frustrating for both of us, so we need to end it for now so that it doesn’t turn into a fight. We can talk more tomorrow and try to come up with something that will work for both of  us.” I didn’t threaten to never talk to him again, I didn’t yell at him. I held my ground in a Mindful and Assertive way and was willing to negotiate within the realm of my own boundaries.

This technique takes practice, but if you move into the holidays knowing that you will be interacting with someone who does not respect your boundaries, you can mentally prepare for that and be ready to hold your ground. You can even practice a sort of “script” ahead of time, if you feel that that would be helpful.

And remember, ultimately, you are not required to interact with anyone who is treating you poorly, violating your boundaries, or abusing you. You can refuse that engagement, especially if you know that you are especially emotionally vulnerable. (Which, I think, many of us are around the holidays.) If you know that a conversation will result in heated conflict, try to ignore it. If not, though, you can break out these skills. If it’s someone with whom you tend to argue, they will be blown away by the calm, firm, assertive manner in which you are approaching the conversation, I promise.

Alright! That’s part one of Interpersonal Effectiveness! I hope you found it helpful despite all the bullet points!

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Here’s a cat picture for your time!

TOMORROW – pop back in the GIVE technique, which deals less with assertiveness and more with maintaining the important relationships in your life. This technique is a fantastic reminder of the best ways to listen and speak to those you care about in a way that keeps the relationships strong.

As always, I’d love to know what you think! What are your thoughts on DEARMAN? Drop a comment below, give this a like and/or a share, or Tweet me @paradichotomy. You can also hop over to the Facebook and join the conversation!

***********DEARMAN, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and all DBT skills were developed by Marsha Linehan. I am not a professional therapist and these skills are not meant as a substitute for therapy. I’m simply sharing things that I have learned and found helpful along the way.

 

 

 

Lies Depression Tells Me

I think, oftentimes, people seem to regard depression and anxiety as “lesser” mental health diagnoses. They’re the “common ones.” The most relatable. The “Oh, well, that’s not too serious. Everyone gets it from time to time” of mental health.

That’s a pretty stigma heavy line of thought.

A depressive episode is brutal. Chronic depression is the underlying, “gentle” version that says “you will never be able to be fully happy.” I live with this kind of baseline chronic depression, mixed with episodes of Bipolar depression thrown in. Even my “manic” is depressed. Depression is my unwanted tag-a-long on this journey in life. It’s my shadow. I can’t get rid of it, no matter how I try.

Depression lies. Constantly. It tells me “your friends and family are sick of you,” “you’ve tapped everyone out,” “no one wants to hear that you’re struggling again,” “stay in bed, there’s nothing out there for you anyway,” “why would you clean your house? You don’t deserve a clean space,” “just cancel those plans with your friends, they really don’t want anything to do with you,” “you’re worthless,” “you’re a piece of shit,” “you’re weak for letting me win,” “you’re pathetic for trying to fight me,” “this will never get better,” “people will be better off if you’re gone.”

Those are my depression thoughts. Yours may be different, or they may be similar. If you have not lived with depression, you may be wondering how one’s mind could be so brutal.

This stream of garbage is constantly flowing in my brain. Sometimes, it’s quieter; sometimes,  it’s louder; sometimes, it’s deafening. But it’s always there in one way or another. Even with meds. Even with therapy.

My job is to cope with it. To keep tabs on it. To be honest about it.

The last thing depression wants me to do is open up to someone about how bad it is. It wants me to isolate and sabotage relationships and sit alone in my apartment at 4 AM thinking about every single crappy thing that has happened to me and how it’s all my fault. That it was all deserved. That I am not worthy of friends, family, love, support, laughter, fun, or happiness.

So, I battle. Sometimes, my battle is simply making myself get out of bed and clean up a bit around the house. Sometimes, it’s making plans even though I feel like locking myself away from everyone. Sometimes, it’s having the strength to be vulnerable and reach out to someone even though everything in me is screaming that no one cares, that I’m an annoyance, that I’m a burden.

Sometimes, I win those battles. I use the coping skills I’ve learned, I recognize that sometimes “action precedes motivation” and I’ve got to get up and do shit in order to want to be up and doing shit. Sometimes I can beat back the incessant lies and insults my depression flings at me. Sometimes, I can turn the volume of that constant stream down to a 1 or 2.

Other times, though, I lose. I sit. I isolate. My brain says “Self Destruct: Check Yes or No” and I hover over the options, tempted to go with Yes. To drink. To call out of work. To give all my friends the silent treatment. To just allow myself to spiral.

This kind of behavior landed me in the hospital, though, so I know I have to be careful with that. The truth is, I’ve gotten better most times at reaching out to at least one person I trust and love when things are feeling super hopeless. But that has taken immense practice. In my recovery,  I’ve learned the phrase “act the opposite”. Depression tells you no, you say yes.

It is very difficult to do that. Especially at first. It feels impossible when you’re depressed to do anything, let alone spend your whole day fighting every instinct you’ve got just to get through a “normal” day, doing “normal” things, without being in bed. That is completely exhausting.

But, it’s also possible.

Especially after practice. I think of it like a muscle I need to to strengthen.

There are days I slip up. Days (sometimes multiple days on end) that I really can’t summon the energy to use those coping skills. Those days are about damage control. “OK, I don’t have it in me today. I’m going to stay in bed, but I’m not going to get alcohol.” Being in bed all day is not ideal, bit it’s the lesser of two evils for me, in that moment.

This way, I am still doing something. I am not at the mercy of depression. Never fully. I have agency, and I have power to resist it.

The fact is, depression is terrible. It’s uncomfortable. It’s miserable. It’s not easy. Nothing about mental health recovery is easy. But learning coping skills and tools and actually using them when things are really bad is worth it.

 

How To Set Healthy Boundaries (Without Guilt)

When you hear the words “healthy boundaries,” what’s your initial reaction? Do you feel like you have them in place? Do you feel like you need or want to have them in place? Maybe, you think that you don’t need them at all.

I used to be the third option. But I would never have worded it like that. I would have said, “I care about other people over myself.” “I just want to help and support people.” “I have a lot of empathy.” And these statements were true. In many ways, they still are. I love people. Truly. I want to help out and support and be there and talk and understand why people do, say, and feel the ways that they do. That’s not a bad thing, though, right? Isn’t that selfless and noble?

You could call it that. But when it’s slowly eroding your soul and sense of self, that’s a problem.

What am I talking about when I say “healthy boundaries”? Simply, it’s having a knowledge of what is your responsibility, what is not your responsibility, and when to say “No.” It’s being aware of where “you” end and another person “begins.” 

So, what’s that look like? It’s a lot to dig through. Let’s start at the beginning. Every one of us has “core values”: the beliefs and principles by which we try to live our lives. You may or may not be clear on which values, exactly, are most important to you, but I’d be willing to bet that you tend to have certain ones that you follow without even thinking about it. You could really value having a clean and tidy living space, being in good physical health, your faith, being compassionate, being a “free spirit”, creating art, living as waste free as possible, being politically active… really, your values could be anything. But they are yours. And when you have awareness of your personal values, you’ll be well on your way to being able to set and hold healthy boundaries. (If you’d like to reflect a bit more on what your values are, here’s a fantastic list of over 200 core values to read and consider. Some will jump out and resonate with you immediately.)

Once you have your values defined, consider how those values impact relationships. We’re not just talking romantic here, but every relationship. Coworkers, friends, family members, and lovers. If those relationships are healthy, and have good boundaries, you will feel able to hold firm to your values regardless of disagreement. You will not need to compromise something very important to you for the sake of keeping another person happy. You and the person with whom you are in that relationship will be two independent people, with individual values, and you will each respect those differences instead of trying to change them in the other person or feeling pressured to change your own.

Being able to live by your core values is at the heart of boundary setting. Living by our convictions and values gives us an immense sense of purpose and self-worth. I we are living our lives in a way that necessitates that we compromise our wants and needs in favor of others’ wants and needs, we will not feel valuable or fulfilled. Because personal values are so important in this process, self awareness is key in the journey to healthy boundaries. We each need ask ourselves which values are non-negotiable and which are open to compromise? How do we handle each situation with flexibility to balance our priorities (i.e. rigidly sticking to our values vs building or maintaining a relationship with someone).

Your most precious values should never be conceded in the interest of a relationship. If they are being compromised, or you feel unable to hold true to them all together, that is a massive red flag that you are in a situation in which your boundaries have been violated.

If you find yourself in a situation like that, it is important to take a step back and consider what you need to do to regain personal agency. If you’ve lost core values, or your personal space (either physically or emotionally) has been violated, you have the right to reestablish your boundaries and require that they are respected. If they are not, you have the right to end the relationship. Setting healthy boundaries and sticking to them is never selfish. It’s never not OK to protect yourself and your space. You have a right to decide who gets a seat at the table in your life.

Of course, this concept would be Chapter One in the book “Easier Said Than Done”. I don’t want to make light of the struggle of setting boundaries, especially if you’ve never really learned what healthy boundaries look like, or if you’ve been in a prolonged situation of feeling unable to have boundaries.

In my own life, I still struggle with the concept of boundaries. Professionally, I had it in the bag. Working at the group home, holding boundaries with my clients was pretty easy. I think because I went into the situation knowing that it was required and expected of me, and that it was the only way to truly support my clients in a manner which would help them grow. But there were plenty of areas of my life with zero boundaries. My marriage, family interactions, and even with work. (I spent four years saying “yes” to every single request for me to cover a shift because I didn’t feel comfortable saying “no”. I thought that declining a shift would make me a bad employee. One time, I worked a 108 hour week, which included a shift of 36 hours straight. This is a great example of a lack of healthy boundaries.)

Like many people (and, probably many of you reading this), boundaries in my childhood home were rather blurred. Growing up with alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and the constant threat of danger in the home will pretty solidly eradicate the idea of boundaries; the choices you make and the roles you assume are largely rooted in the need for survival. You don’t have the ability or luxury of worrying about “healthy boundaries” in situations like that. I fell into a caretaker role very early on in my life and maintained it well into my 20’s in one relationship or another. Breaking deep reaching, very established patterns in boundary setting like that takes an awful lot of time and energy. I still struggle with boundaries, to be honest. But I am actively working on that.

So, if you, like me, struggle with boundary setting, let’s look at what we can do about it! Once we’ve reflected a bit on what our core values are and where those values and our sense of self are being violated, how do we establish boundaries without feeling selfish or guilty? I’m glad you asked! 

HERE ARE TEN STEPS TO TAKE AS YOU BEGIN SETTING HEALTHY BOUNDARIES:

GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION: You can’t set boundaries if you don’t believe you have the right to do so. You have the right to say no, to protect your values, to be true to yourself, and to protect your space and your well-being. Believe that. Allow yourself to do it.

START SMALL: If you’ve never had boundaries in place, or if it’s been a really long time since you have had them, making huge, sweeping changes to the ways in which you interact with people will be difficult and discouraging. It could be so overwhelming that you give up on setting boundaries all together. This, obviously, is not the idea. Practice setting “safe” boundaries to get used to the idea. If a friend asks you to go out one night and you’re tired, practice saying, “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m really tired, so I’m going to pass.” If your boss asks you to cover a shift, practice saying, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to do that.” Your friend will very likely not hate you forever to passing on one evening out; you will not be fired for refusing one shift. These are great “baby steps” to take as you get used to setting boundaries again.

CONTINUALLY WORK ON SELF AWARENESS: If you are feeling resentful, uncomfortable, or belittled, it’s very likely that a boundary has been violated. Especially at first, it can take some serious self reflection to determine exactly which boundary that is and how to protect that boundary in the future. Self reflection and radical honesty are really important in recovery in general, and the same is true in boundary setting.

THINK ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH YOUR PAST INFLUENCES YOUR PRESENT: Going along with that self awareness, it’s important to start to recognize patterns of behavior. Our pasts strongly influence our present. If you grew up with abuse or alcoholism or neglect, you did not learn how to set boundaries. Our past tends to haunt us until we understand the ways in which we fall into those same patterns over and over again. Only then can we start to break free of them. If you find yourself feeling the need to take care of everyone else at your own expense, and you grew up in a home where you were the caretaker, you can see how those two things are not just related, they are one in the same. Once you recognize these patterns, you can start to break them. (Just remember, “start small!”)

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU’RE FEELING: If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you may remember post about naming your emotions. (If you’re new, or you want a refresher, you can find it right here.) The skill of naming emotions is very important. When we can identify what we’re feeling, we can also identify the red flags that a boundary has been violated.

PRIORITIZE SELF CARE: Let’s be real, even if you want to be supporting other people (remember, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s not at the expense of yourself or your values), you’re going to be a lot better at it if you’re taking care of yourself. You’ve got honor what you mind, body, and spirit needs to be at your best, and you need to honor your feelings if you want to be able to have healthy relationships with others. So, don’t feel guilty for taking care of you first. I’d give the old “airplane oxygen mask” analogy, but I think you get it.

NAME LIMITS: You can’t hold firm boundaries unless you are clear about them. Know your limits, and make sure other people know them as well. This will make it a lot easier to hold the line when necessary, because you can say, “I told you that this is not OK, so I need you to respect that or else this conversation is done.”

BE DIRECT: Be clear about what you expect. If you send mixed messages, you’ve already got blurred boundaries because it’s very like that the person with whom you are interacting is incredibly confused and unsure of what you want and need. Don’t expect others to be able to read your mind. Remind yourself that you have the right to say exactly what you need, and then to hold strong to it.

BE ASSERTIVE: “Assertive” is a pretty heavy word for me. I’m never quite sure how to do it without feeling like a jerk. Can you relate? Sometimes I struggle with what “being assertive” even means, as I tend to think of it as synonymous with “aggressive”. Realistically, though, “assertiveness” is the balance between “submissiveness” and “aggressiveness”. If you are non-assertive, or submissive, your go to method of interacting with someone is to put their wants and needs above your own and being overly invested in being “nice” or “pleasing”. You will also likely feel guilty, or as if you are imposing on someone, when you do try to ask for what you want or need. People with an aggressive manner of interacting with people communicate in a demanding, abrasive, and even hostile manner, completely disregarding other’s rights and feelings in order to get what they want. This style of interaction is often abusive, with people attempting to gain what they want through coercion, intimidation, and sheer force. Assertiveness, on the other hand, is simply asking for what you want, or saying “no” to something that you don’t want, in a direct, clear manner that does not manipulate, negate, or attack the other person. There is no need for guilt when you are assertive. It is not wrong of you to be direct and clear.

HAVE SUPPORT: Don’t be afraid to tell some of the people in your life that you are working on your assertiveness and your ability to set boundaries and express your wants and needs. If you have some unhealthy relationships, part of “starting small” may mean talking to a friend, family member, or therapist who is supportive of your journey to healthier boundaries. Talk about what you would like to be different in those unhealthy relationships, and maybe even ask them if you can “practice” setting some of those boundaries and having those difficult conversations before you actually engage with the specific person (or people) in those problematic relationships.

There you have it! Remember, as with so many other aspects of mental health recovery or increased mental wellness in general, setting boundaries is a process, not an event. It will take time. It will take practice. It will take work. But it will be worth it. I promise.

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Thanks for reading! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Drop a comment below, hit me up on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and feel free to check out my Instagram! If you liked what you read, please consider subscribing and sharing!

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Have a great day, all!

… Yeah, But What I’m Feeling Really Sucks!

Welcome to the fourth and final part of this series! If you’re new, I’ve been giving a quick overview Emotion Regulation, which is one of the four “pillars” of DBT treatment. If you haven’t yet, or if you need a refresher (it’s been a minute since I last posted on Emotion Regulation, I know, more on that later), I strongly suggest you read part one: Emotion Regulation – What is That?!, part two: What Am I Feeling? (And Why It Matters?), and part three: OK, I Know What I’m Feeling… Now What? before continuing here. If you’re all up to date, then read on, Macduff*!

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Ahhhh… the return of the Rat’s Nest! It just wouldn’t seem right to finish this series up without it. Besides, untangling the Rat’s Nest happens to be the best way to tie up this topic! (See what I did there?) The final portion of Emotion Regulation is “Decreasing Emotional Intensity”. There are some specific tools and tricks to greatly reduce the negative feelings we don’t want and, in some cases, even get rid of them completely. As with everything else in DBT (and any therapy or healing work) there is no instant gratification, there is no “EASY button” (Am I dating myself? Yes, dear reader, if you are younger than twenty-five, you likely would consider me “old.” There. I said it so you don’t have to!) While there is no “quick fix”, there are some things we can each practice which, over time, will allow us to feel much more in control of our emotions. We can take the driver’s seat again and move from Emotion Mind to Wise Mind.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to run very briefly through the things we’ve already covered. I promise to be quick. We’ll just rip off the redundancy Band-Aid rather than pull out the sutures of “shit you’ve already read” one by one.

Remember how this series started? With the simple idea that emotions are neither good nor bad, they are simply information. The only time any emotion can get us into trouble is when we avoid it or deny it so long that we believe it is “unmanageable” and that we have no power over it. This is the case for most of us, at least at first. If you learned that anger is “bad”, you’re likely walking around with a lot of inhibited anger that is messing with your relationship to others as well as yourself. Eventually, that anger is going to boil over and you are either going to explode at someone else or take it out on yourself. If you’ve struggled with suicidality before, you may start to get nervous when you feel even a little sad or isolated; if you’ve experienced panic attacks from social anxiety, you probably tense up the minute you start to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable in a crowd. You tell yourself “I CAN’T FEEL THIS. THIS IS DANGEROUS.” over and over until you’re trying to avoid anything even remotely associated with that emotion at all costs. And every time that cycle repeats, those pesky, maladaptive shortcuts in your brain that tell you you must avoid those feelings are reinforced. We then find ourselves in a predictable and entirely unhelpful self-fulfilling prophecy. We believe that something is too much to handle, and thus it becomes too much to handle. We start to view our emotions as some massive, unstoppable force outside of us, when, really, no emotion is outside of our control. We just need to learn the tools to manage it.

This is the part of the post where I digress quickly to give the same disclaimer I’ve given in every post in this series: DBT is not about minimizing your struggles and it is not a suggestion that you can just wave your Positive Thoughts Wand through the air and let it shower you with the mystical power of the Sparkles of Optimism and be magically free of all of your struggles. This is work. It’s taking the time to learn the tools and practice using them until it’s easier for your brain to fire neurons that say “This sucks! Here’s a healthy coping skill!” than it is to fire the neurons that say, “Hey you. Yeah, you. This sucks. You know it sucks. There’s nothing you can do. Let’s make it suck more!” (Because, really, that’s what our negative coping skills do in the long run – they make our lives, both internal and external, worse.)

OK, so we’re using tools, not shooting Care-Bear Rainbows of happiness out of our… abdomens. Great! What kind of tools, you ask? Fantastic question! That brings me nicely to telling you what Tool Number One is! (See, I’m responsive!) Step one to Emotion Reg. is identifying emotions. Really taking the time to name, specifically, what we’re feeling. You may say, “I’m angry.” But “angry” is a really broad emotion – are you livid or are you irritated? Are you seething or are you peeved? See the difference there? It’s important to recognize, as much as we can, our specific emotion. Especially when it comes to healthy coping.

Think about it – if you are someone who has come to believe, through experience, that “anger is bad”, you’re going to have a visceral reaction to anything that feels even remotely like anger. But naming it, saying, “I’m irritated right now.” can make it feel much less threatening. Remember, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” You’ve got to separate the individual wires from the tangled Mess of Uselessness before you can figure out what’s what; which ones to keep and which ones to toss. Looking at the box, that original heaping mess of wires, controllers, headphones, yarn, speakers, screws, power chords, and component cables, was incredibly overwhelming at first.

When I started this series, I knew that the Rat’s Nest would be a really useful metaphor, but man did I put off this post! In part, because this post required the sorting and organization of all of the chaos that was in that little cardboard box. I don’t think I need to draw too bold a circle around how perfectly that avoidance also fits with this topic. But finally, despite not wanting to, I sat down and I did it. (For you, Reader – I did it for YOU!)

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As I sat on my living room floor slowly tracing wires through loops and freeing them one by one, I did so while watching what is probably my absolute favorite series of all time – The X Files. I can quote just about every  episode at this point, but I never get tired of watching it. Why do I mention this here? Because it was a healthy little dose of self-care. Which is essential in Emotion Regulation.

It’s hard work, and it can feel completely overwhelming, especially at first. If you are one of the 99.9999999999% of us who grew up being told, somewhere in your life, to stuff one emotion or another, actually digging into your feelings, being curious, sitting with them, and working through them is very difficult. Take care of yourselves! Do something you enjoy! Take breaks! Just don’t avoid the work all together, because, as I said, that’s where we all tend to get into trouble.

Over time, and with practice, identifying and acknowledging emotions gets easier. Then you can move into some of the skills for decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions and increasing positive emotions. That’s where we dump the whole box of wires out and look at it. We see how complex and tangled it is, but we can start making it neat and manageable, one wire at a time. In part three of this series, we checked out some specific skills to decrease that negative vulnerability and ways to increase positive experience. If you’re living with depression, or any mental health diagnosis, or you’re just here to learn how to better manage the emotional suckiness of any kind, it’s so important to remember that this is a process, not an event. You can’t snap your fingers and have the wires miraculously untangled. It’s not going to happen. If you go into the process thinking that it will, you’re going to get frustrated and give up before you even start.

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TA-DA! Separated and manageable! 

That photo is a portion of the Rat’s Nest, no longer tangled, with each item easily identifiable. For those wondering, this amazing feat took two and a half episodes of The X- Files to complete. I didn’t sit down expecting to be done before Scully introduced herself to “the FBI’s most unwanted.” I probably would have thrown the box and my computer had I expected that of myself. And then I would have spent hours telling myself how stupid and worthless I was for not accomplishing the impossible – because depression and anxiety are just neat like that. All that to say – have reasonable expectations of yourself and be gentle. I’ll say it one more time, because it really is that important: this is work. This is hard fucking work. But it’s worth it.

OK, we’re now in that dreamed of world. The wires are separated and organized! I’ve thrown the cardboard box into the recycling bin so that I may never lay eyes on it again! I know exactly what I have, and I know exactly what I don’t need!

Now that’s done, what next? What do I do with all the crap that I know I’ll never use again? What do I do with the broken chords? Say we’ve finally pulled apart and named our emotions, and the broken ones are the one’s that we really don’t want anymore – the ones that really suck? Because, let’s be honest, while anger and sadness and loneliness are, like all emotions, simply giving us information, they are uncomfortable to feel long-term. In life, we’re going to feel them from time to time. That’s a given. But a lot of us have felt them for so long with no tools to properly interact with them that they’ve become this constant thing. Those shortcuts in our brains are well-worn and comfortable. Emotion Reg. is about learning to pull a Robert Frost and cut through the underbrush to make a new, better path. Eventually, that path will be just as used as the old one, but at first, it takes commitment and dedication to our recovery process to blaze that trail. We’ve been stuck in a feedback loop of all that junk for way too long and the mass of negativity and pain needs to go!

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Remember in part two, when I was first talking about the Rat’s Nest and I said that for some godforsaken reason there was an actual spool of yarn tangled and mixed with all the wires? I wasn’t exaggerating. The only way to get it separate was to cut it.

So, what do we do with the emotional yarn? The stuff that’s just tangled up and preventing us from the untangling process? We flex those healthy coping muscles and we forge the tools we need to cut through it. As with anything in DBT, the number one approach is mindfulness. What does that look like? DBT is big on steps, so here is the step by step guide to mindfully managing negative emotions:

OBSERVE YOUR EMOTION

Note it’s presence: name it and acknowledge it.

Step Back. You know what it is, but you also know that it is within you, you are not within it.

Get unstuck from the emotion. Untangle it from the other wires. Hold it out and away.

EXPERIENCE YOUR EMOTION

This is where we have to sit with it for a bit. This is the uncomfortable part, but it’s worth it, I promise.

Think of it as a wave, it’s come, it’s washing over you, it will recede.

Try not to block or suppress the emotion. It’s not going to hurt you, even if it’s uncomfortable. It’s not a danger to you.

Don’t try to get rid of the emotion or push it away. Feel it.

BUT…

Don’t try to keep the emotion around, either.

Don’t hold onto it.

Don’t amplify it.

Do you ever find yourself “spinning”? You start to feel depressed and then you put on depressing music and focus on your depressing thoughts and just let them build? I know I have fallen into this trap more times than I can count. There is a difference between feeling and acknowledging a difficult emotion and torturing yourself with it. Don’t torture yourself.

REMEMBER: YOU ARE NOT YOUR EMOTION

You do not necessarily need to ACT on your emotion.

Remind yourself of times you have felt DIFFERENT.

When we’re in super emotion mind and engulfed in negative feelings, it can seem like we’ve never felt anything different and we never will. This is a lie we subconsciously tell ourselves. Actively remind yourself of a time when you were not angry or upset or lonely. This can help prevent that spinning.

PRACTICE LOVING YOUR EMOTION

Don’t judge your emotion (or yourself for having it).

Practice WILLINGNESS – don’t refuse to engage with your emotion.

Radically accept your emotion – “I’m really hurt that my friend cancelled our dinner plans. I’m disappointed and I feel rejected.” If you feel rejected, you may start to tell yourself some lies like, “My friend hates me.” “No one ever hangs out with me.” “I don’t have any friends because I’m a loser.” Remind yourself that just because you feel a certain way right now does not make it the Truth, and it does not mean that you will always feel that way. Remind yourself of times that your friends have not cancelled on you. Accept that you feel disappointed, and accept that that feeling does not need to consume you and send you spiraling.

Some automatic thoughts associated with emotions simply don’t serve you. They are junk and you don’t need to keep them around. You need to challenge them and then toss them.

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In the Rat’s Nest, I found a bag of screws and washers, specifically for some piece of furniture somewhere that I no longer own. I found phone jacks. I found a strand of USB Christmas Lights (that I used to love) with a cut wire, and I found headphones with only one ear bud.

While not actively screwing up my process of untangling (unlike the yarn), some of the things I found in the Rat’s Nest are simply not necessary for me to keep around. I don’t need to hold on to any of these things. I’m sure that we all have emotional stuff that we just don’t need anymore, even if it used to serve us (like those USB Christmas lights). This is where the really hard work comes in. And this is the section of Emotion Regulation that, if you practice it, will have the biggest impact in your life. You need all the other stuff we’ve talked about first, just like I needed to dig through the mess that was the Rat’s Nest first. But what do you do with the things that you know you don’t need, that you know are not serving, but that you feel attached to?

As backwards as it may seem to someone who hasn’t been living with challenges around managing emotions, our negative emotions can feel like a safety net. They are familiar. It’s easy to sink into them. Sure, now you can name them, you can be mindful of them, you can tolerate them, but how do you actually change negative emotions? 

You use the power tool of DBT. You Act Opposite. This is not easy and will make you incredibly uncomfortable at first. (At least, it did me.) What does “Acting the Opposite” mean? Exactly what it sounds like. Here’s another DBT list for you:

FEAR

Do what you are afraid of doing… OVER AND OVER AND OVER.

APPROACH events, places, tasks, activities, and people you are afraid of.

Do things to give yourself a sense of CONTROL and MASTERY.

When you are overwhelmed, make a list of SMALL STEPS you can do; then DO the first thing on that list.

GUILT OR SHAME (when these feelings are justified)

Repair the transgression: Say you’re sorry; make things better if possible.

Commit to avoiding that mistake in the future.

Accept the consequences.

Let it go.

GUILT OR SHAME (when these feelings are unjustified)

Do what makes you feel guilty or ashamed OVER AND OVER AND OVER.

Approach; don’t avoid.

SADNESS OR DEPRESSION

Get ACTIVE. Approach; don’t avoid.

Do things that make you feel COMPETENT and SELF-CONFIDENT.

ANGER

Gently AVOID the person you are angry with rather than attacking; avoid thinking about them. Don’t ruminate.

Do something NICE rather than mean, passive aggressive, or attacking.

Imagine sympathy and empathy for the person rather than blame.

 

THAT’S THE LIST I WAS GIVEN in Partial Hospitalization as examples of Acting Opposite. These are only examples, and they are only methods to prevent yourself from suffering too greatly with your emotions. Obviously, this is a simplified list. Fear is different than Phobia, for example. Working through a reduction in vulnerability to a Phobia is best done between you and your treatment professionals. For unjustified Guilt or Shame, this is only for activities. For example, you may feel unjustly guilty about taking an hour for yourself to read or watch TV. This is the situation in which you would approach until you no longer feel guilt or shame. This is not meant for trauma survivors (like myself and many of you wonderful readers) who may feel deep shame as a result of their trauma. Again. that is something that needs to be worked out with proper supports in place to prevent any re-traumatization. This is more of a springboard. A place to start.

And nothing needs to be set in stone. My ideas of Acting Opposite when I’m depressed, for example, change depending on circumstance and severity. If I’m moderately depressed and trying to summon the strength and motivation to go to work, I will drag my ass to work. That’s Acting Opposite. One really bad days, it means dragging myself out of bed and into the shower. Maybe forcing myself to wash a couple of dishes. Maybe it’s just making myself get off my bed for five minutes and walking around my apartment before crawling back into bed. You know you. Do what you know you can, then do just a *little* bit more. Overtime, you’ll thank yourself. Because the hold your negative emotions have on you will diminish.

Living with a mental health diagnosis (or diagnoses) means that many of these struggles will be present in our lives, in some form, for a long time. Possibly forever. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to say “Yeah, I see you, but you’re not running the show!” Even if we could only say that 50% of the time, wouldn’t that be a hell of an improvement? I know it would for me. That’s why I work to apply the skills from this series to my life every single day. Sometimes I fail miserably – sometimes the wire I’m tugging is just too knotted and it’s time to take a break and try a new angle in the morning – but that’s OK, because everything is progress. Everything is a little step toward recovery.

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NOTE: I AM NOT A THERAPIST, PSYCHOLOGIST, PSYCHIATRIST, OR MEDICAL EXPERT, and this series is not intended to be used in place of professional treatment – I’m just sharing some tools and approaches I’ve found useful in my own recovery. If your current providers are not using DBT and you are interested in learning more, I highly suggest bringing it up to them. It’s well worth it. 

AS ALWAYS – I look forward to hearing your thoughts! Leave ’em in the comment section below, find me in the Twittosphere @paradichotomy, or pop in on Facebook! Peace and love, all. Sorry this post was such a long time coming!!

*RE: “Read on, Macduff” I’m aware that the actual quote is “Lay on, Macduff”, I’m playing off of our pop-culture misquotation, not the original Shakespeare. Also, this is not an invitation to kill me in battle. Please don’t do that.

On Expectations

I hope you’ll indulge me in a bit of a personal update post. Emotion Regulation Part 4 is coming, I promise! It’s taking a bit longer to polish than its predecessors, but it’s almost complete. According to the schedule that I keep trying to implement, but almost never follow (please remember, I’m still quite new to this “blogging” thing and there’s a lot of stuff I’m still figuring out), Wednesday is meant to be some form of a personal post – usually one of my Scrawling Toward Sanity posts, or a tidbit from my personal life that has broader applications and relatability, such as When Someone You Love Dies by Suicide.

Tonight, though, I’d like to throw it back to the style of my older posts – like my very first post or On Shoveling, Fathers, and Forgiveness. Straight up reflection on something that’s been on my mind a lot lately in my own, personal life that I’d like to share with you. Maybe you’ll relate, maybe you won’t, but I really feel the need to give this line of thought some air time.

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Prior to January of this year, I was employed at a fantastic (if stressful) job: one with great pay, amazing benefits, and the absolute best co-workers a person could ever hope to have. It was meaningful work, too: supporting young men as they learned to regulate their emotions and grow life skills as they worked toward independence. I loved my job. Truly. I looked forward to every shift and left every single night immensely grateful to be where I was. On nights that featured violent escalations, I was grateful for my teammates and the support and skill we all shared in keeping the situation safe for ourselves as well as our clients. On nights that included long, thoughtful, impactful conversations with those clients, I left grateful for the opportunity to walk along side those young men in their journeys; I was grateful and humbled to have the chance to make some lasting impact in their lives, however small it may be. On nights that were not particularly eventful at all, I was grateful to work in a “home like” environment: to have a job that sometimes consisted of geeking out to a Star Wars movie or the staff and clients enjoying each others’ company over a friendly, for chips, game of poker. Regardless of the events of each shift, I was always thankful to work in such an amazing place. And I miss it every single day.

As you know if you’ve been following my blog, my life changed pretty drastically in January. A seven day stay at an inpatient psych unit, another month and some change of Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient, difficulties navigating the mental health system as a patient, and a general lack of direction have more or less consumed the past six months of my life. Finally, though, I am on all of the correct medications, I am in regular therapy, and, as of today, I am once again a member of the work force! The part time, minimum wage work force, maybe, but a member of the workforce nonetheless!

But here’s the thing: going through something like this, living in this state of limbo of med adjustments and intensive therapy; meeting with professionals of all different specialties and areas of treatment; telling my story over and over and over and over again: these things can really start to wear a person down. And the truth of the matter is this: once you’ve gotten “into the system” as “mentally ill”, people’s expectations of you change. In a really big way.

Treatment professionals, I’ve found, tend to have generally low expectations of someone “like me” – you know, bipolar, PTSD, hospital stay. These things, these labels, these events, sometimes seem to carry more weight than anything I do or say. Never mind the fact that prior to this very difficult chapter of my life, I was employed – full time. Often working much more than full time, honestly. I was a student at the University of Vermont, trying to finish my senior year and earn my Bachelor’s in Social Work (and I made straight A’s first semester despite being mid-breakdown). I was an active participant in my own life. I had a pretty vibrant social life, actually. I had a lot of things going for me. But all of that sort of fell through the cracks of crisis stabilization, psychiatrists, primary care visits, and counselors.

I get it. When one is in an acute mental health crisis, it’s not the time to push getting back to full time work and school and all of the responsibilities of life, at least not all at once. I understand that. But, looking back, I realize that somewhere in the crisis stabilization process, the expectations placed on me became less and less.

When I was in the hospital, the doctors said I would just need a few weeks to complete the PHP program and then I’d be back to my regularly scheduled life. At the PHP program, they suggested I hook up with Voc Rehab to get some support around finding a different, less stressful full time job. I was discharged from the IOP with a note saying that I could “maybe work” in a “part time, low stress environment.” When I started up with my new therapist, there was only talk of further therapy. She suggested I join the DBT group the agency runs. I LOVE DBT. If you’ve followed this blog, you know that. And I say this with absolutely no disrespect to the members of this particular DBT group or to the facilitators, but the fact of the matter is no one in that group was a “peer” to me. The pace of the group was far too slow. The facilitator would spend thirty minutes explaining a concept I understood after five. I don’t want to sound like a judgmental, arrogant jerk here, but sometimes groups are just not a good fit, you know? There was nothing wrong with any member of that group. Their lives are theirs; my life is mine. But it was very clear to me that this group would not challenge me at all, and that I would struggle even staying engaged in it. I would not be getting much from the sessions. But my therapist (who I really do like) thought it would be a good fit, and honestly, that stung a bit.

But why wouldn’t she? By the time I made it to her office, professional expectations of me were so low that no one even mentioned a job. Those of you who know me personally know that such a low bar would almost be laughable, were it not for the fact that something started to happen over these months of the medical professionals’ gradually lowered expectations of me: they became my own. The consistent explicit or implicit suggestions that I was incapable of achieving anything remotely close to the life I used to have burrowed into my subconscious and set up shop. And I sat in resigned acceptance. I thought “Maybe this is all life has for me from here on out. Maybe I am incapable.”

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And it wasn’t until I realized this, until I recognized what was happening in my own psyche, that I knew I had to put my foot down a bit and refuse to allow others’ perceptions of me to run my life. I’m taking my recovery process very seriously, and I fully intend to continue with the treatments my providers believe will be helpful, but I refuse to do it blindly anymore. I refuse to sit back and have my capabilities dictated to me. I realized that this is just an attitude that I need to adopt for my own well-being. A little self-advocacy can go a long way toward boosting self confidence, I think.

And so, I told my therapist that the DBT group was not a good fit for me. She was a little disappointed, but I think she understood. And I applied for a job. Not through Voc Rehab, not through my therapist, not through the state offices, but by myself. Because I needed to do that. I think I needed to prove to myself that I could. So, I did some good old fashion pavement pounding and filled out applications and handed them in. TJ Maxx is the only place that called me for an interview (I assume because the jump from residential instructor to unemployed for six months to looking at retail jobs is probably a little off-putting to some potential employers).

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When I was offered the job, I was understandably excited (because a part time job beats no job, and having something to get me out of the house on a regular basis is exciting, and the idea of being able to be a productive member of a team is motivating in and of itself.)

But again, those pesky expectations reared their somewhat ugly heads when I told loved ones and my therapist about it. More than one person responded with “Oh that’s awesome! You know, it’s really great that you have something to fill your days.” Other people said, “Oh, do you think you’re ready for that?” Some said, “That’s great! You know, some people make full careers out of retail.” My therapist asked, “So, what, you’ll working 4 hours a week?” Now, again, I appreciate the congratulations and I am excited about this job. Retail has always been fun to me, and I’m pretty excited about the discount, too! I enjoy helping customers and making upsales and all of that jazz – I have since I was a junior in college working at F.Y.E.

But do I see myself working part time retail for the rest of my life? HELL. NO. Could I consider making it a career if I got a managerial position? Maybe… but honestly, probably not. I enjoy retail, but I’m hard wired for a career that involves helping people beyond making sure they have a shirt in the right size and are signed up for a credit card to get savings. I’m still not sure what that looks like for me now. Will I ever work residential again? I don’t know, but I know I won’t be doing it in the foreseeable future. Right now, my job is about one thing above all else, and that’s money.

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The fact is, one cannot live in this society without cash flow. I’ve got bills. I have a lot of bills, actually, with all the doctors I’ve needed to see over the past six months. And I need to start making a dent in the stack of collections notices. I don’t meant to knock retail by any means. As I said, I enjoy retail. And I have a lot of friends who have careers in retail. But they don’t just enjoy it, they are passionate about it. And that’s the key, right? It’s building your career around your passion.

But passion can get snuffed out pretty quickly in the land of low expectations. If enough people don’t believe you’re capable of something, and they tell you so, you can start to doubt yourself pretty damn quickly, regardless of everything you thought you knew to be true.

So, that’s where I’m at. I’m setting my own expectations for myself. And I’ll be sharing them with anyone who will listen for as long as it takes until they hold those expectations of me as well. And you know what? If it turns out they are right and I am wrong, and for some reason, a sales associate job is too stressful for me at this specific time in my life, then I’ll find a job with a little less commotion and a little less social interaction. But I reserve the right to determine that for myself. And frankly, I need a couple of people in my life to take off the kids’ gloves. I need my treatment team to know that I am not satisfied being the “unemployed crazy person”, and that I am not going to be satisfied working a part time sales associate job for the long run, either. Or even a full time sales associate job. I need my treatment team to recognize that these are stepping stones right now. I need acknowledgement that, yes, I am still hiking that mountain, but there’s no way in hell I’m pitching a tent and living here.

This post is, of course, very specific to me. There are many people who are incapable of work due to their struggles. And it’s feasible that I will be in that situation again at some point in my life. I certainly was not capable of working in January or February of this year. This is in no way a “pull yourself up by your boot straps and stop making excuses” post. I hope it’s not interpreted that way. This is not meant to minimize the experiences of anyone living with a mental health diagnosis or diagnoses.

I just know that, for me, the lack of faith in me by others lead to a lack of faith in myself, which then lead to further depression. That, coupled with med adjustments, lead to me kind of dropping off the face of the earth for a few weeks there. But I’m back. And, honestly, I’m more motivated than I’ve been in the entirety of the last 6 months to continue to recover, to learn to live within and adapt to my limitations (because I do have limitations), and most importantly, to grant myself permission to have the dignity of risk and find those limits for myself, through experience, and not from some checklist on a therapist’s clip board.

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And that motivation is not limited to my employment status, either. It is for this blog; for the fight against stigma and against false assumptions and expectations around someone’s abilities; for the fight for support, understanding, and access to resources to those in our community who cannot work; for the dignity of risk for everyone who wants to give it a shot; and for a more comprehensive understanding of the ways that the same diagnosis can look very different for different people. I’m motivated to continue to educate and advocate, and to share my struggles and triumphs with anyone who’ll listen. Because that’s the single most effective method to attack stigma and misinformation.

Thanks for reading.

AS ALWAYS, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever been in a situation where others’ expectations of you dictated your own? When you were first diagnosed and receiving treatment did you feel helpless? Do you agree that finding and setting our own limitations is a good idea, or do you think it might be too risky? Whatever your thoughts, I’d love to engage in a deeper conversation in this topic! Leave your two cents in the comment section below, Tweet me @paradichotomy, or hit me up on the blog’s Facebook page

ALSO, in case you missed it, I had the opportunity to be on a podcast last week – check it out here! I’ll catch you all later!

 

OK, I Know What I’m Feeling… Now What?

It’s the beginning of the week, and that means we’re jumping into another resource/skills-based post! If you’re new, I’m currently doing an introductory series to the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill of Emotion Regulation. If you haven’t yet, please feel free to read part one and part two before continuing here.

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If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a fan of metaphor. You remember the Rat’s Nest? Let’s stick with that imagery. That huge mess pictured above is really absolutely no help to me whatsoever. Even if I know what chord I need, and I know for a fact that it’s in there. Yes, knowing the specific chord I’m digging around for is a starting point, but I’m still in for an incredibly frustrating time if I have to dig through that tangled mess every time I need a chord, right? The question is, how do I separate out what I need and prevent it from getting tangled again? (No, this blog is not going to suddenly become full of house organizing tips, I’m the last person you want telling you about that stuff!)

As you may imagine, separating and organizing all those chords is not a one step process. It takes time and a whole lotta work! Would you look at that box and expect me to “just organize it” in the space of a few minutes? Of course not! (Well… I hope not, anyway. You’d be out of luck, there. It’s physically impossible.) So why do we all seem to demand such a miraculous feat of ourselves when it comes to mental health recovery? Honestly, we go to a hospital for a few days, or we go to therapy once a week for a few months and we get frustrated that we’re not “finished” with all the untangling and differentiation yet, we berate ourselves for not being “better”. That is incredibly unfair. All we can do is take it one step at a time. So, what’s the next step? Now that we recognize that our emotional rat’s nest is a complete mess, what do we need to do? You may think “start untangling”, but that’s not it. (We’ll get there next week, I promise.)

First step is simply to make sure that we’re not tossing in more chords and speakers and yarn! To accomplish this, I took everything out of the Rat’s Nest. It was quite overwhelming:

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But, by taking it out and having it out in the open, I ensured two things: first, that I would not toss any more assorted electronic accessories into the snarls of rubber and wire already present; second, that the mess was undeniable now: in my hands, on my floor… there was simply no ignoring it or shoving it out of sight and out of mind anymore. I had to look at it, I had to feel it woven between my fingers. Yup, this is going to be a big job. 

Now, in Emotion Regulation terms, getting the mess out of the box and knowing that, in the future, only properly wrapped, zip-tied, easily identifiable chords will be placed back into that box represents increasing positive emotions. I feel good about that knowledge. Taking everything out of the box and knowing that never again will I toss a spool of yarn into a box or chords just to make my life more difficult represents decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions. If the junk that I don’t need is out on the floor for me to see, in the light of my stylish yet affordable floor lamp, it’s not going to blindside me next time I need to dig something out of there. And those two skills are the next step of Emotion Regulation!

Let’s start with Decreasing Vulnerability to Negative Emotions. After all, that’s probably the one that seems most difficult, right? (It definitely felt that way to me.) If you’ve ever been to any form of group therapy or a twelve-step program, you may be familiar with the term HALT – in other words, stop and think if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. For me, this has been a very helpful little prompt. I know that if I am any of those things, I am very likely in “Emotion Mind”, which places me at risk for using some maladaptive coping techniques. The idea with Emotion Regulation is to get out of Emotion Mind and into Wise Mind, which simultaneously honors and acknowledges what you’re feeling and uses Reason Mind to react in a balanced way. OK, I’m a little worried I’m venturing into text book territory here. This is not a class room, and I am not a teacher. I just had to give a little exposition to make sure we were all on the same wave length. There are quite a few DBT skills I could go into here for decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions, but the most popular skill is called “PLEASE MASTER.” It’s a decidedly lackluster acronym, in my opinion; and it’s one of those “way easier said than done” things. But it did help me shift my thinking, which is why I am sharing it with you. Initially designed and presented by Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, in her book Skills Training Manual for Treating Borederline Personality Disorder, here it is:

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Treat PhysicaIllness – Take care of your body. See a doctor when necessary. Take prescribed medication.

Balance Eating – Don’t eat too much or too little. Stay away from foods that make you feel overly emotional.

Avoid mood – Altering drugs – Stay off non-prescribed drugs, including alcohol.

Balance Sleep – Try to get the amount of sleep that helps you feel good. Keep to a sleep program if you are having difficulty sleeping.

Get Exercise – Do some sort of exercise every day; try to build up to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise.

Build MASTERy – Try to do one thing a day to make you feel competent and in control.

(Like I said, the acronym is not exactly what one would call “inspired”.)

But that’s neither here not there. If you’re anything like me, you look at that list and say, “Well yeah, if I could do that shit, I’d be way better off! But that’s where I struggle! I can’t just make myself do these things when I feel like crap!” I know. I get it. It sounds impossible. But, again, this is all about baby steps. If you’re not a fan of this technique, that’s totally cool. I’m just sharing it because it has truly been helpful to me in my own recovery. So, how did I start tackling this list? The same way I started tackling the Rat’s Nest. I pulled it out and put it in the open.

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Yup, really. Right on my bathroom wall. I see it every time I brush my teeth or wash my hands.

It’s my multiple-times-daily reminder to do healthy things that will benefit me in my recovery, or, if I’m not doing them (believe me, there are more days I “miss” applying some or all of this list than there are days I “hit” it, but I’m working on it!), at least I can check my mood against this list and see what may be contributing if I’m having a hard time. A group facilitator at the hospital told us all to “check our lens” every time we went to the bathroom. She chose the bathroom because, like it or not, it’s something we all have to do multiple times a day. “Checking your lens” is essentially what I’m describing. Checking my feelings against how I’m doing on wellness goals, reminding myself, even if my lens is “narrow” (i.e. tunnel vision, focused on the negative self talk and the lies my depression and anxiety like to throw at me), that it will pass. That there are environmental and physical factors at play that will not always be present. That I can ride it out. I chose to post this list in the bathroom as a sort of homage to that group facilitator. You can do whatever you’d like with it.

ALRIGHT, so that’s one way to REDUCE vulnerability to negative emotions. What about INCREASING positive emotions? That sounds more fun, right? It certainly did to me.

Here’s a funny thing about our brains. When something amazing happens, we remember it. When something terrible happens, we remember it. When something mildly annoying happens, we remember it. But when something mildly good happens? We tend to forget it. Here’s a little story to illustrate:

I wake up for work. My alarm goes off as scheduled. My coffee maker kicks on automatically and I have a cup on my way out the door. My car unlocks and starts without issue. As I’m driving to work, I hit a traffic jam. I realize I’m going to be late. My phone properly connects to BlueTooth, I call my coworkers to give them a heads up. They assure me it’s nothing to worry about, and they’ll see me when I get there. I get to work twenty minutes late because the traffic jam was truly terrible. I accomplish all of my work tasks. I drive home without incident. A family member asks me how my day was. I say, “It was terrible! I was 20 minutes late to work this morning!”

I carried the stress of being late to work with me all day, because I am not usually late to work. All of the things that went “right” in my day are so routine, I don’t even consider them positives. Can you relate to that?

Now, again, this isn’t a post on inspirational, magical thinking to use the power of positivity to poof your depression/anxiety out of existence. Just a reminder that our default setting is not to be mindful of positive events. But, we can nudge our minds a little in the direction of focusing on positive events when they happen. And that act, in and of itself, can increase our general happiness over time. If you live with anxiety and depression, though, you know that even when things are going well, it’s really easy to slip into worrying about when the positivity will end and things will go to hell again. (Hey PTSD friends, I’m looking at you, too!) When this happens, the principles of mindfulness also apply. Refocus on the moment. Try not to get caught up in the past or present. The flip side of that is to be UNMINDFUL or your worries. Distract yourself from thinking about when the positive experience will end; distract yourself from thinking about whether or not you deserve the positive experience.

YEAH, sure. OK. Noooooooo problem. All those deeply ingrained negative thoughts, I’m just gonna shove them away with positive mindfulness. Yup. I’ll buy that. Okey-Dokey. Absolutely. That makes perfect sense. 

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Seriously, though. That’s not what I’m saying. Remember everything in DBT, and in recovery in general, is a skill which needs to be used and used, frequently and often, before there will be any major change. It’s basically re-wiring our brains to diminish the maladaptive thoughts and negative coping skills that get us into trouble and then, over time, to increase our ability to form adaptive thoughts and positive coping skills. This takes work. This does not happen over night, or even in a few months. BUT, you can take the first few steps toward getting there any time.

The best way to start anything in life is to begin where you are. In the short term, what can you do to increase pleasure in your life? The goal here is to pick a few things that you truly enjoy and make time for them each day – even if it’s only ten minutes. I enjoy playing my guitar. I do it for a minimum of ten minutes a day. During those ten minutes, I am enjoying myself. I am experiencing positive emotions. What’s something you’re good at? What’s something you enjoy?

Ahh… but you’re depressed and you don’t enjoy anything at the moment. What then? Loss of joy is sort of a hallmark of depression, right? It can be overwhelming to even consider something that you might enjoy doing depending on how deep in the abyss you find yourself. This is a valid point. This is also the part of the post where I share yet another resource I’ve found helpful. Beautiful humansperson, I present to you the The Adult Pleasant Events Schedule. I know, it sounds corny (or maybe even slightly taboo), but it’s really just a list of prompts of things that adults find enjoyable – everything from needlework to sightseeing, watching sports to, yes, sex. I promise you you will find something on this list that is at least moderately fun. I found it very refreshing because it is a pretty comprehensive list. Most of my experience in therapy hasn’t really touched on the fact that adult people enjoy adult things. This list does not shy away from that fact; it embraces it outright. And I’d like to give you the same challenge that my DBT group facilitator gave me – pick seven things* from this list and commit to doing one a day for the next week. Like I said above, even if it’s just ten minutes a day. I did this exercise, and the impact on my over all emotional state was impressive.

*Some activities on this list (like gambling, spending money, drinking, and sexually-based activities) may be a specific “problem area” for you. DO NOT CHOSE AN ACTIVITY THAT WILL DECREASE YOUR OVER-ALL WELLNESS. That would defeat the point of the activity. I’d also like to reiterate that I am not a therapist, doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. I am sharing techniques from my own, personal recovery process that I’ve found to be helpful, and that I hope you will find helpful as well. Beyond the disclaimers, go forth, dear reader! Have a fun week!

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As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, complaints, or tangential observations on this series or the blog in general! Please lemme know in the comment section below, and feel free to hit me up on Twitter and Facebook as well! If you decide to take on the seven day challenge, I’d be really interested to hear what activities you chose and how the experience was for you! please feel free to share that, too!

ALSO, I’m wicked excited to be able to share with you all that I am OFFICIALLY a contributor to The Mighty Site! Please feel free to check out my first Mighty article 5 Things I Learned Living with PTSD and Bipolar Disorder

What Am I Feeling? (And Why It Matters?)

Welcome to Part 2 of my Intro to Emotion Regulation resource series. If you haven’t yet, check out part one (linked above) for a broad introduction to the topic.

In my living room, there’s a skinny, overstuffed closet. It’s become kind of a catch-all. It’s a disorganized, cluttered, precariously stacked mess of all of the things I don’t need in my day to day life (and some things I may never need again). At the very bottom of this Leaning Tower of Useless Crap, there is a bent, crinkled, water stained cardboard box filled to the brim with various electronics chords I’ve collected over the years. Affectionately (sort of) called The Rat’s Nest, this flimsy box houses a massive ball of boom box power cables, skinny wired head phones that no longer work, chords to long-since-corrupted and discarded laptops, USB Christmas light strands, component cables of all shapes and sizes, and for some God forsaken reason, an actual spool of yarn, among other things. I only know these details because a few weeks ago, I actually needed a chord that I thought might be in there. Thus began what would become an infuriating 40 minutes of following each individual wire, looping, twisting, untying, and looping back, all in what turned out to be a fruitless search. (The wire needed was, of course, in the back of the closet, free of the box, completely untangled and ready for use, but such is life.)

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Dear Readers, I present to you: The Rat’s Nest (or, Sheila’s emotional mess incarnate).

I think of emotions like The Rat’s Nest. When you first think about them, they seem pretty straight-forward, if sometimes unpleasant and challenging. It’s just a big ol’ box o’ wires, right? But when it comes to untangling those wires, identifying what each one does, and sorting through them to create something a little more manageable than that enmeshed mess, things get a little more complicated. STEP ONE of Emotion Regulation is literally just identifying your emotion(s): observing them and describing them, and then learning what they do for you. 

To stick with The Rat’s Nest metaphor, it’s figuring out what each individual wire is and what it’s for. Because, just like with my stupid and unnecessary mess of chords, if you can separate your emotions, sort them out, and identify their function, then you can use them to help you, rather than being overwhelmed by the mess and not knowing where to even start. And you can toss the wires you no longer need, or that no longer serve you.

The first time I was exposed to Emotion Regulation was at the Partial Hospitalization Program I attended after being discharged from Full Hospitalization. Another patient there had a phrase he repeated several times: “If you can name it, you can tame it.” It may sound like a silly bumper sticker platitude, but for me, it really sums up the first step to Emotion Reg. You’ve got to know what your feeling before you can even start to do anything about it.

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Yes, I’m THAT Blogger who does an impromptu photo shoot in my kitchen at midnight to embellish my post and get my point across. Don’t judge me! (OK, you can totally judge me. I can take it. Judge away.) I call this series: “Sheila tries to express basic human emotions while slightly over tired and VERY over caffeinated.”

SURE, you can name the basic emotions. You might even be really good at saying, “God! I’m so freaking angry right now!” or “I’m so sad, nothing matters.” But let’s dig a little bit deeper there, alright? Say that ANGER is every single component cable in my Rat’s Nest. Well, for component cables alone, I’ve  got the old school red, yellow, white to red, yellow, white; the red, yellow, white to PS1 connector cable; the newer red, blue, green to red, blue, green; a wicked old school red, yellow, white to cable connector, and a Python component cable with all the colors you could ever want for your video entertainment needs. (No, this isn’t a plug for Python cables… see what I did there?)

Silly puns aside, if anger is the broad name given to all of my component cables, you can see how that’s still confusing and hard to differentiate. If I told you to go into my Rat’s Nest and get me a component cable, but I didn’t tell you which type, that would be an incredibly daunting task, right? But what if I told you “I need you to grab the Red,Yellow, White to Red, Yellow, White cable.” OK, realistically, if I ever asked you to get anything from The Rat’s Nest, you’d be well within your rights to kindly tell me to fuck off. But let’s pretend that’s not an option: you’re somehow my indebted servant or intern or something, and you have no choice in the matter. Even though you still have to untangle the mess, at least you know specifically what you’re looking for. That makes it much easier.

Similarly, screaming “I’M ANGRY!” in every situation wherein anger is the “root” emotion can make it awfully hard to actually understand what you’re dealing with. Are you Furious or are you Humiliated? Are you Annoyed or are you Seething? (No, this isn’t an SAT vocab boost, I promise.) Think about it, though. Annoyed is very different from Seething. Differentiating and naming your specific emotions can, in and of itself, help you get to the bottom of where that emotion came from and what it’s telling you.

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Which brings me to my next important point: Emotions are just information. You do not need to react in any predetermined way. If you feel depressed, you do not need to isolate; if you feel anxious, you do not need to self-harm; if you feel angry, you do not need to lash out. Our emotions get us into trouble when we think that we have no control over them, or when we try to avoid and ignore them because of our fear of them.

But here’s the kicker, when we avoid emotions, we reinforce the idea that avoidance is the only real option. Over time, our avoidance urge becomes so strong that it starts to act on anticipation rather than a precipitating event. Let me give you a quick example: you have a really stressful day. You feel like you need to “decompress”, so you open the fridge and crack a few beers before bed. By the time you go to sleep, you are stress free and feeling fine. Later in the week, you have a less stressful day, but it’s still been a little rough. You remember how alcohol helped you relax after that last bad day, so you drink a few more beers. Over time, this continues, until, “Holy shit! I have a stressful day coming up – that huge presentation I need to give – well, I’ve got to loosen up a bit to be able to sleep. I’ve got to be loose for the actual presentation.” Before you know it, your brain is now home to the super exciting short-cut “stress, or anticipated stress = drinking.” The idea has been repeatedly reinforced and, before you know it, you feel completely incapable of sitting with any stress at all. You’ve got to drink it all away. Your avoidance response becomes seared into your unconscious. Now, this isn’t your fault. It’s natural to want to avoid pain. But wouldn’t you agree that that is not the way to live your best life? Needing a drink or two (or six or seven, because, let’s be honest, tolerance to alcohol builds pretty quickly) every time you’re stressed or thinking about being stressed is not healthy – physically or emotionally. The truth is, we all have to learn to sit with our stress. And then, over time, learn skills to alleviate it in a healthy way.

When it comes to learning Emotion Regulation, it’s important to interact with our emotions through a lens of positive assumptions. We tend to view certain emotions (like anger, sadness, and fear) as being “bad”, being “the enemy”, and being “the root of our problems”. We assume that our emotions are threatening and that we need to stuff them down so that they don’t make us do something harmful or take over our lives completely. But the fact of the matter is that those core assumptions, those attitudes we hold toward emotions, are flawed. Changing our perspective of emotions, and viewing them in a more positive light, can help take some of the power away from them right off the bat. I’m not sure how to make this list of positive (or just realistic) assumptions pretty or interesting, but they are truly invaluable in this process, so I’m just going to list them for you. (Sorry if this is where the post seems to get dry, but reading on is worth it, I promise. And there’s a pretty, inspirational quote picture waiting for you! Isn’t that what the Internet likes?) Anyway, here:

1) Your emotions are important. They exist to give you information about yourself and the world around you. Don’t minimize them by avoidance!

2) You have to experience and acknowledge your emotions. Avoiding them will just cause more problems over time.

3) The more you try to avoid or escape your emotions, the more powerful and consuming they will become. Yes, really.

4) Feelings are simply another way we experience the world. They are a form of sense, just like taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight. 

5) Feelings are always right. It’s OK to feel whatever you are feeling in a given moment. We can have automatic negative or false thoughts in reaction to emotions, and we can have go-to behaviors that can be harmful or maladaptive, but the emotions themselves do not cause these things. They are always giving us necessary information, and honoring our feelings is key to on-going health and wellness.

6) Before you can move on to a different emotion, you have to sit with the one you’ve got currently. This isn’t Mario Bros. You can’t just hold A and slam B to jump over this stuff. Your emotions are not a Piranha Plant and they will not eat you or drag you down a Warp Tube. You can sit right next to them, acknowledge them, and learn from them without being threatened.

7) Feelings do not need to be acted upon. Feelings can increase the chances of you acting in a certain way, but just because you feel happy doesn’t mean you need to laugh. Just because you feel overwhelmed doesn’t mean you have to turn to self-harm or substance abuse or isolation.

8) You are separate from what you’re feeling. Your emotion is a part of you at any given moment, but it is not “you”. You are not angry, you are feeling anger. Who you are is not the same as what you are feeling in the moment. (Even if the moment is very long and it seems to consume you.)

9) The automatic thoughts attached to your emotions are likely not giving you the most useful advice if you are in “high-arousal” (high depression or anxiety: feeling your heart beat fast, muscles tighten, that “I need to do something fast, RIGHT NOW! to get rid of this terrible feeling!” thought loop we’ve all been stuck in) Your thoughts will tell you avoid, avoid, avoid!! But, again, this will not help you in the long run.

10) As much as it sucks, Emotion Regulation can’t be learned overnight. It takes practice, hard work, and consistency to master. As my case manager at the PHP program said, “These skills are simple, but they’re not easy.” Be gentle with yourself, but keep moving forward. Keep practicing. Over time, those unhealthy shortcuts in your brain will fade and you’ll have brand new, freshly paved roads leading to healthy coping skills and a better overall life.

11) Emotion Regulation is not about insight. If you’re anything like me, you can analyze the crap out of every situation imaginable. You can think about it intellectually. You can consider the angles. But that won’t necessarily help you out here. There was a fantastic quote in one of the books we read from in Morning Group at the hospital (I know, that sounds corny as all hell). But this quote stuck with me so much, I wrote it down in my journal. It’s from a passage called, “Let Life Reveal Itself to You” from the book Journey to the Heart by Melody Beattie:

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Sometimes we get so caught up in needing insight – thinking, if we can just dig up that treasure chest of understanding and clarity, all of our problems will be solved.  This is not the case. Emotional Regulation is about constant practice and application of the behavioral skills you need to, over time, create healthier responses to overwhelming emotions. It’s not a journey to the temple to meditate for a month and find complete serenity. It’s not a quick fix. Don’t over-think it. As the Nike advertisers would say, Just Do It! and then do it again, and again, and again until it’s your “new normal.”

12) Emotion Regulation skills are a process. Again, there’s no magic “on” switch that’s going to get thrown overnight and allow you to wake up screaming “I’m cured!” This, like everything else in life, is a process and not an event. As we dig deeper into specific skills next week, you’ll see that there are many tools available. Some will work better than others for you. I have my favorites, and you’ll have yours. Some will not work well for you the first time, but may be just what you need the second or third time. It’s a whole lot of trial and error.

Again, on paper, these skills are simple and straight forward, but putting them into practice is not easy. It involves literally reprogramming your brain. Pulling apart each individual wire to make everything you keep useful, and to ensure you’re able to get rid of the things that are not serving you and are just cluttering things up.

THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING, THOUGH is to “simply” be mindful of your emotions. Name them. Avoid the urge to avoid them. Again, in instances of depression or anxiety, avoidance can be everything from isolating yourself from the people who care about you to suicidal ideation or action. It encompasses the entire spectrum. At the core, though, all maladaptive behaviors are about avoidance of emotions we can’t or won’t tolerate. It’s completely understandable if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to want to get rid of all that grossness immediately. You are not wrong for having the urge to use substances, self-harm, lock yourself away from the world, or even consider suicide. I want you to hear that loud and clear: YOU ARE NOT WRONG. You are not bad. You are not a failure. You are not pathetic. You are not weak. You are none of those. This is not a condemnation. This is not a “you SHOULD do better” post. This is simply an introduction to the idea that there are other, healthier alternatives which, over time, will help decrease your suffering and aid in recovery. I also want to reiterate that I am not an expert in this. I’m working on learning this stuff, too. I’m in my own recovery process. But, in my experience, this stuff works. And it works wonders.

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And I leave you with this handy Emotion Vocabulary Card. What are YOU feeling?

I hope that you found this post informative and helpful. Part Three of this series will be posted next Monday! 

What are your thoughts on all this Emotion Regulation stuff? Do you think it could be helpful? Do you think it’s a load of crap? Do you have questions or parts you don’t understand? Leave all your thought in the comment section below! If you found this post helpful, please like and share it, and, if you enjoyed reading this, take a cruise around the rest of the blog and feel free to subscribe! 

FINALLY – Let’s get SOCIAL! I love to chat about pretty much anything and everything – TWEET ME or catch me on FACEBOOK  for general updates on Life, the Universe, and Everything! And in case you missed it, I’ve started a Patreon! I’m REALLY excited about the growth happening with this blog and some wicked cool collaborative projects I have coming up! Patrons will receive exclusive content, early access to blog posts, further materials on the resources discussed here (with some really fun art work by a secret guest contributor who’s kind of a big deal in the world of internet comics) and lots of other wicked cool perks as they become available! I’m also holding my first 50 Patrons, regardless of donation amount, in a special category – when physical goodies arrive, you’ll get some freebies, even if you only back me for $1/ month as a personal thank you from me to you!