“Crisis” is the term used in DBT, but some people find themselves struggling to identify if they are actually in “crisis” or not. Here is a way to break it down and consider the value of using this set of skills. They are actually helpful to anyone who has ever struggled with painful or difficult life situations.
- Accept that pain will come your way. The more you pretend that pain is not there, the worse it will get.
- Write down a scenario in which you imagine coping well.
- Let go of what you can not control. Stop doing what you can not do.
- Rehearse acting according to your values and believing you did the best you could despite the circumstances.
- Don’t avoid doing things that are a little bit hard just because you are suffering; approach tasks that give you a sense of accomplishment.
- Increase your connections with other people. Pain allows us to be vulnerable, soften our stance, and let others in. Bearing pain is easier when we are not alone.
- Find people in your life and express appreciation to them openly.
- Are your actions effective? Do what is needed to get through the situation. Don’t do something that will make it worse.
- Assume that you are not the only one who is suffering.
- Contribute, help out, help others solve their problems; find ways to make other people’s lives easier.
- Do one thing to nourish your body and your soul.
- Write yourself a compassionate letter in which you acknowledge the pain and difficulties you are facing.
- Find one thing someone else can do to lighten your load and see if they would be willing to do it.
- Find three things a day that you are grateful for and share them with someone else.
- Stop comparing, judging, or evaluating your emotions.
We live in a society in which persons tend to dichotomize responsibility, resulting in blaming, scapegoating, and finding fault. When and if persons are at fault, there needs to be a process in place to make changes, resurrect one’s place in society, do repair work, and find a way to prevent further harm from happening in the future.
Figuring out whose fault it is often results in a person feeling guilty or bad. The value of having a sense of shame or guilt about what a person has done is that the person has the opportunity for corrective action. But blaming or shaming a person without opportunity for corrective action doesn’t help people know what to do that can prevent, fix, or change things in the future. In my experience helping people with anger problems, there is a false sense of having fixed a problem by figuring out who is at fault. Figuring out whose fault it is (“not me”) creates a sense of separateness, polarity, relationship rupture, and inattentiveness to what needs to happen next. Shame can create further problems when people actively avoid being blamed or don’t have clear direction for what to do next.
A less dichotomous (and dialectical) approach involves one in which people are impacted by each other; people all have roles in how conflicts happen in relationships. While it is possible that one person did something hurtful to cause a problem in a relationship, it does not necessarily negate roles in identifying how people influence each other, what can be done to fix or solve it, or what could be done to ameliorate the situation.
The next time you figure out that it wasn’t “your fault” consider the following:
What was your role in the series of events that led the other person to behave they way they did?
How is the other person impacted by your behavior?
What impact do you intend or want to have on the other person?
What is at stake in terms of your self respect, your ability to keep the relationship, and your ability to be effective in addressing the problem?
Even if you did not cause the issue, relationship rupture, or problem; what can you do to fix or change it?
Are you doing anything to make the situation worse (or making the other person feel worse about the situation than they already do)?
What solutions or proposals do you bring to the table to work on preventing the problem from happening in the future?
What impact does blaming or shaming another person have on your short and long term relationship with them?
What difficulty emotions are you being asked to tolerate or bear given the complexity of the situation? Is an unwillingness to tolerate discomfort making the situation worse?
What specific nonjudgmental feedback can you take give the person “at fault”? (In other words, how can you be part of the solution?)
If it was “your fault”, and you are not sure that shaming and blaming yourself does any good, consider the following suggestions for repair work:
Start with a succinct, matter-of-fact nonjudgmental description of what happened that includes a very brief summary and an acknowledgement of the situation. Use the following prompts to fill in the details of your own situation:
The consequences for my actions are (or may have been)…
My intention was…
My intention was not…
When I behave this way people sometimes react by…or think that…
I regret that…
I am sad that…
I would like for…
In order to prevent this from occurring again, I am going to commit to the following…
In order to make up for what I did, I will…
What I appreciate about you is…
What I value about this relationship is…
I hope that in the future…
Even if you are overwhelmed by overwhelming problems such as homelessness, drug use, or abortion rights, remember that people have more influence and power when they work hard to maintain relationships, help people in society do better, or provide solutions. Pointing fingers is never helpful unless you are prepared to give clear and specific feedback and are willing to be proactive in working towards solutions.
What is Dialectics?
Dialectics is based on the idea that two opposing concepts can both be equally true. One truth does not trump or rule out another, which undercuts the dichotomy of a “I am right you are wrong” type of relationship. A common dialectic is that you are perfect as you are (acceptance), and that in order for things to turn out differently in your life, you need to do things differently (change). One is not more true than the other, and one truth does not rule out the other truth. Sometimes people need acceptance, and sometimes people need to be challenged. Both belonging and growth are an inherent part of being in relationship.
Dialectics challenges the idea that one person is always “right”, because when you take into account diversity of perspective, other truths often arise. Being “right” often fails to take into account effective communication and the value of the relationship. Experience and emotions get ignored. A set agenda of being “right” often gets people stuck in a very rigid, dichotomous, black and white, non-dialectical stance. Dialectics are important in that sometimes you can find the one thing you have in common with your enemy instead of focusing in ways you are different. Relationships exist in context of conflicting truths, yet relationships are the glue that carries us through life.
What are the four Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills?
DBT is a complex treatment that has confusing origins in terms of how it was developed and who it was for, and has been tailored to a wide range of populations and settings. The DBT skills are universally applicable materials that help people with extreme and painful emotions, intolerable life situations, and relationships. The four skills sets are as follows:
Core Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a skill that helps people focus attention, regulate arousal, calm the brain, quiet the mind, and settle in. Being mindful is a way to steady and anchor oneself in order to observe quietly and not “react” to what is going on. It is inherent in all of the other skills in that it requires a steady, quiet, secure stance in the face of demanding life situations. It takes spaciousness to know what is going in with your body, your self-experience, your wants and desires, and your life. If you don’t pause the moment and check in with yourself, it is easier to get “caught up” in the banging and thrashing of what life throws in your direction. Mindfulness can be a spiritual practice of quiet contemplation, a way to press the pause button, and way to regroup. Core mindfulness skills taught from the DBT material include skills of observing and describing without judgement. Other traditions, spiritual practices, health care services, and therapies teach mindfulness, so it is not “new” nor is it confined to just DBT skills; its roots are actually in Zen Buddhism. There are multiple ways of accessing mindfulness including mindfulness based programs, meditation groups, trainings, and apps. DBT groups are known for implementing a mindful practice or exercise in every group, and like many spiritual traditions are simply considered part of a daily practice.
Emotion Regulation: This is a set of skills that helps people to observe and describe what they feel (you can see the overlap with mindfulness) in order to help regulate arousal, understand what they feel, and know the reasons why they feel the way they feel. Skills cover ways to reduce emotional suffering through mindfulness and opposite action, and ways to reduce vulnerability to emotional suffering. Skills are quite complex and take practice, feedback, and validation. Since emotions can be tricky, elusive, (and just plain unbearable at times) the emotion regulation content is not something you could “quick learn” and be done with it. Sometimes people are not always aware of how or what they feel in general, and there is nothing pathological about this. It is a process! Knowing oneself and knowing one’s emotions is a lifelong task not subjected to any particular type of disorder, and does not end just because you have had a first exposure to all of the skill content. That is why working together on ways to regulate arousal given varying life circumstances can best be done over time in small group settings that promote cohesion and intimacy.
Distress Tolerance: In order to regulate emotional arousal, finding ways to endure the “I-can’t-stand-it-itis” of painful and extreme emotions is critical. Surviving painful life circumstances well means doing so in a way where people do not lose self-respect, forget their values, give up what is important to them, or react in such a way that makes things worse. Sitting in the fire and not reacting is often harder than picking a fight, poking the fire, making others suffer in order to prove a point, exacerbating pain to let others know how bad things are, undermining a person where it hurts, forcing the university to prove its point, perseverating on being “right”, asking “why me”, or engaging in self-defeating or relationship destroying behaviors. Being willing to tolerate the unknown, be zen with the universe, stop fighting reality, and do what works is skillful practice. We all want things to do our way or to turn out for the best. In reality, a lot of people are suffering a great deal and need everything they can to survive well. Distress tolerance skills encompass not only change strategies (if you can do one thing make it better, why wouldn’t you?), but acceptance and willingness skills. Anyone who has successfully undergone any type of exposure treatment for anxiety knows that the benefit to tolerating anxiety is a decrease in overall anxiety. There is an inherent truth that reality is easier to face once you stop fighting it, thus freeing you up to do what is needed to effectively solve problems.
Interpersonal effectiveness: True to the concept of the dialectical philosophy of DBT, it is better to be effective than it is to be right. The interpersonal skill content encourages readers to identify objectives in situations (what exactly it is you want or don’t want), how the relationship may be impacted, and if self-respect is at stake. Balancing the three helps people to look at natural barriers and consequences of interacting, and enables readers to problem solve the cost/ benefit of ignoring each. For instance, you can ask for what you want at the expense of the relationship, or you can give into a relationship but sacrifice self-respect. The balancing act of relationships is an ongoing challenge for everyone, and some give and take is part of how people stick together, find intimacy, and keep people close. Interpersonal skills also include ways to get out of or decrease contact with toxic or unwanted relationships, set limits, say no, and to identify barriers to doing so. Direct rehearsal in terms of “what to say and how to say it” benefits group members in that they can try out and receive feedback in both verbal and non-verbal forms.
A book of all the DBT skills is available for purchase via this link: https://tinyurl.com/y2qad6sk
Here is a short video of me on YouTube with an overview of the skills: What Are the DBT Skills? DBT Skills with DrReneeHoekstra
When people start to have anxiety problems they usually believe that anxiety itself is a problem. When anxiety becomes the focus of attention people overlook the actual fear or fears that create anxiety in the first place. The problem with this is that it often fails to activate problem solving, because the anxiety creates distractions from addressing the actual situation that is being avoided. People can successfully avoid treatment for panic by focusing on being anxious about being anxious, which ironically tends to generate more panic and amplify the belief that anxiety is indeed the problem. In some circumstances, because people have tried to get rid of their anxiety unsuccessfully, they believe that nothing can be done for their anxiety. Sometimes people get angry when anxiety treatments are presented as options, because they don’t want to be invalidated for their efforts to get rid of anxiety.
People have anxiety about all sorts of things: Losing people they love, sickness or illness, death; threats of losing power, status, money; being in situations that threaten physical integrity or safety, being humiliated or shamed in public, being verbally attacked, being fired, or loss. In a given situation coping well with these situations means incorporating some degree of acceptance, acknowledgement, and sadness. It also might activate problem solving, fixing, or making changes to prevent these things from happening in the future. This is what normal people do in normal situations, and creates understandable, realistic, and adaptive ways of coping. Community supports, problem solving, religious institutions, family, and other means of coming together helps people to naturally solve painful life circumstances and problems.
People that have a lot of problems with anxiety generally tend to have problems identifying and responding to the actual thing that makes them anxious. If you are afraid of having conflict, and then you tend to avoid people when conflict is present, and then you have anxiety because you have conflict, and then you blame your anxiety, and then you try to get treatment for your anxiety, you can create ways to avoid addressing the actual problem. For example, treating anxiety with relaxation techniques without actually looking at what it is about the conflict, exactly, that is making you so anxious evades problem solving. When “the problem” becomes “the anxiety” most people’s solutions are to get rid of how they feel, not to figure out how to deal with conflict. If you could figure out how to respond to conflict adaptively, chances are your anxiety will naturally go down.
You can’t address emotional problems by failing to identify the thing that evokes the emotion in the first place. Here are some brief questions to help you figure out your anxiety:
What is it about this situation that you are actually afraid of? What is the actual threat?
What is the realistic likelihood of this actually happening?
If you had to approach what you are afraid of, what uncomfortable sensations, emotions, or experiences would you have to be willing to tolerate?
If what you are afraid of is actually happening, how would you approach this situation effectively?
What is one adaptive, problem solving step that you could take?
What can you do to validate the pain or difficulty of this situation to yourself?
In this pandemic, many people’s lives have been disrupted in ways they never imagined. People are struggling with losses, lack of structure, difficulty with motivation, changes in schedule, computer fatigue, lack of ability to control things, feeling restricted and limited in what they can do, and being told what to do by governmental authorities. Anxiety prevails when times are uncertain, time frames are not set, and no one knows what it will mean for “things to go back to normal.” People usually cope better when they have a clear answer as to when the stress and restrictions will end; as they can predict and control how long they will have to tolerate what may not feel tolerable. The not knowing is the challenge.
Sitting with uncertainty is often a major part of adaptive coping. Often when people feel out of control they behave in ways that produce an illusion of having more control, including trying to be more controlling themselves. Anxiety behavior tends to be restricting, rigid, and inflexible. Some pick fights with people they love. Some try to micro-manage the people around them. Some yell, lash out, or escalate. Some people withdraw, sleep, or restrict their interactions with others. Some stop reaching out to friends or people they love. Some avoid getting things done or move forward. Some drink alcohol or use marijuana in excess. Others cope by antagonism or rebellion, externalizing blame to authority figures who can’t make this end, either.
In an era of a pandemic, there is no immediate quick fix. No one knows what will happen, who will contract the virus, and who will be taken by the virus. No one can cheat death. Here are some things to keep in mind in the era of uncertainty:
-Anxiety behaviors are not a way to obtain certainty. People often have their own “personal fix” of what they do when they are stressed. Some of this has some sense of normalcy and is not harmful, such as sleeping a bit more or eating more chocolate. However, some anxiety behaviors have hurtful outcomes. What is your anxiety behavior when stressed, and does it actually control the outcome of when the pandemic will “end”?
-Be willing to accept the discomfort of uncertainty. In the face of uncertainty, people have found ways to cope well. Find the ways in which people are coping well and see what you can do to manage stress and anxiety without making it worse. Reach out and ask what other people are doing with boredom, fatigue, work-life changes, and other related stressors. Find the news, heroes, and people who have survived great life challenges well. Once you accept what you can not control, your anxiety may not disappear but it will go down. Trying to control what you can not control makes it worse.
-Keep in mind your values. What is important to and who is important to you and why? What does this tell you about your spiritual values, who/ what to trust, and who you rely on when you are having a hard time? A willingness to yield control often means finding more trust in community. People are rediscovering lost values as limits are being placed on them, and finding new ways and means of connecting to family and loved ones. Keep asking and looking people for the silver lining, the unseen benefit, or the ways that people are enhancing their sense of connection.
-Do your part. If you have something to offer at this time, consider the benefit or value of what you can do for others. Often contributing is a way to distract from our own anxiety and involves universal benefit. Donate to a food drive, reach out to neighbors, do errands for someone who is quarantined, pick up trash in a nearby park or bike path, give blood, make masks, cook or bake for family members, repair something that is broken, join a neighborhood volunteer task force, or start online Zoom socials.
Psychiatric meds actually do work, and they very well may be working. Psychiatric medications have helped numerous people with many different things, including nightmares, anxiety, symptoms of bulimia, public speaking, mood regulation, paranoid thoughts, and depression.
However, there is one thing that medications will never do, and that is get rid of emotions. Emotions are hard wired, biologically adaptive responses to situations that help people survive. They give people important information about threatening situations and painful circumstances. The allow people to know what matters, what to hold close, what to pursue, what risks to take, and what to avoid. Without emotions we would not have important information about ourselves, our circumstances, our environment, and other people.
People have tried numerous and unsuccessful things to get rid of emotions. This might include drinking, drug use, numbing out, hurting oneself, picking fights, avoiding, sleeping, dominating a conversation, being coercive, smoking marijuana, or being violent. The simple truth is, emotions can’t be eliminated. If they are temporarily eliminated, they come back.
Some people don’t like their emotions because their emotions show up when other people tell them what to do, how to think, how to feel, or how to react. Thus they minimize or inhibit their emotions in these situations because they are trying super hard to fit in, avoid conflict, live up to someone’s standards, please a parent, or survive in their environment. However, this can lead to a very unhappy life and can be very painful.
Sometimes people are very sensitive to emotions, thus they tend to have strong reactions to things that may, to others, not seem like that big of a deal. While this can lead to bigger, out-of-control emotional problems, it is also important to learn how to discern when a threat is actually a threat, vs. when a person develops a fear or phobia about something that is not a threat.
Emotions are often related to eccentric, atypical, or problematic behavior. If you have a behavior that you are trying to stop doing, just consider if not doing that behavior brings up any discomfort, anxiety, or restlessness for you. Asking people to stop doing behaviors such as self-harm, drinking, escalating an argument, threatening suicide, doing a behavior excessively or repetitively, or picking a fight is quite hard. The benefits if these behaviors can sometimes include getting a point across, expressing an emotion, getting taken seriously, reducing anxiety, or getting another to be validating or affirming. Sometimes significant others don’t react at all until another person escalates or flips out, which makes the problem behavior even harder to stop. (After all, it worked!).
If you think your psych meds aren’t working it may be worth asking yourself: What feelings do you have that are intolerable? What do you think your feelings might be telling you? What feelings do you try to ignore? What feelings are trying to get your attention? How willing are you to bear with some of the discomfort of what is going on for you? If you honored your feelings and what they were telling you, what sort of action would you take?
Understanding, naming, managing, and controlling moods are a lot of work. Thankfully, there is are services available that are focused on doing just that- and aren’t focused on dosages or prescriptions. While meds do wonders for people- they are not, thank goodness, the only way of helping a person solve emotional problems. In fact, the entire basis of the group services that I provide help people with all of this- managing mood, understanding emotions, listening to one’s wisdom, and taking necessary steps to tolerate feelings better. Getting rid of what you feel is just not an effective long term strategy for solving emotional problems.
One of the problems teens struggle with is honesty. And it’s not only honesty with one’s parents or authority, but honesty with oneself.
Part of psychological distress comes from hiding the more difficult and disturbing aspects of experience from oneself. While this can sometimes be adaptive, it can become problematic when it comes to drinking, sexting, drug use, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and other situations teens can sometimes get themselves into.
Being honest about a situation means admitting it is actually happening, admitting it is real, admitting the distress is real, and addressing potential consequences. Not admitting it is real, not asking for help, and not coping with the situation can lead to even more problematic consequences. Addressing something openly- while often difficult- can lead to prevention of further problems.
Admitting to the reality of a situation also may involve admitting to one’s role or part in the situation. Teens can sometimes not be honest because they have a fear of getting into trouble or a fear that it will escalate an intense reaction in the person they tell. They would rather avoid the short-term pain of intense reactions than the long-term problems of the situation. And teenagers are often not thinking about long- term consequences! The double bind is to deal with it all alone. A teenager who is all about gaining independence and relying less on one’s parents may believe that secret keeping is the only way to gain privacy and independence.
If you are a parent and want to increase you teen’s ability to confide in you, consider the following:
What are you doing to invite conversations about difficult topics, and what are you doing to punish conversations about difficult topics?
Are there topics or themes in your own life that are “off topic”? Are there conversations that would be too emotional for you to handle if someone were to ask?
Is the short-term anxiety of “not knowing” something worth avoiding based on the long-term consequences of not having a conversation at all?
What types of things do you “hide” from yourself because if you admitted they were true, you’d have to face the consequences?
If you were being completely honest with yourself, what situations would you have to confront?
What types of things did you keep from your parent/s when you were a teen, and what do you wish could have been different?
Being open about emotionally “forbidden” topics will help create an environment where openness is encouraged. Being more and more comfortable with intense emotions, painful life situations, and one’s own ghosts will help you develop deeper relationships. Avoiding painful life situations can sometimes create more psychological distress than seeing what is in front of you, admitting it exists, and taking steps to address it.
If you get thrown off a horse, should you get back on? Some people will suggest that you need to get back on the horse immediately so that you will gain mastery over your fears. If you don’t get back on the horse, then your fear will haunt you the rest of your life.
Is this really true? Here are some ways of approaching fear that isn’t very effective. The first is to fight your fears or treat the situation like a battle zone. It means taking the reins, having control of the situation, bucking up, grinning and bearing it, tightening your muscles, and powering through. It can be coercive and forceful. In some cases it means blinding yourself, dissociating or disconnecting from the fear, or minimizing or reducing the value of what your fear might be trying to tell you. Generally it is doing the thing that you are afraid of as a way to prove yourself or prove your point.
The reason this doesn’t work is because it often means engaging in life as if it is a battle. Staying in the battle field often means getting hurt, risking relationships with others, being coercive, or putting the other on the defensive. Getting back on a high strung or agitated horse to gain mastery over fears is not an effective way to manage fear.
The other ineffective way of handling fear is to completely avoid anything associated with the fear. This means that any mention of the feared object or situation is avoided. Conversations stop, people stop making eye contact, the air becomes stilted and stale, people avoid people, and people avoid a wide range of stimuli that becomes associated with the feared situation. The person may be humiliated that they gone thrown off a horse, so they go out of their way to hide it. While people lead perfectly fulfilled lives without riding horses, the person who can’t drive past a barn, watch a television show with a horse on it, have a conversation about what happened when they were thrown off a horse, or set foot on a farm may find themselves restricted in ways that have nothing to do with riding the horse itself.
Handling fear effectively means being able to approach the situation with a flexible style that involves both challenging oneself, listening to the validity of the fear, being kind to oneself, backing off when things are too overwhelming, identifying smaller steps to approach the fear, and figuring out why the situation/ issue/ activity is important to you.
Fear is a useful emotion in that it provides information about oneself and one’s situation. Fear protects us from danger, gets us out of threatening situations, and helps us cope adaptively. Fear can also be so extreme that it takes over our lives, restricts our ability to do the things that are important to us, or prevents us from having a life- the life we want.
Here are a few questions to help you figure out your fear:
- What about the situation, event, activity, or relationship is important to you? You may decide not to ride horses ever again, but does this fear bleed over into other areas of life that prevent you from doing what matters? If riding horses is not important to you, and it doesn’t get in the way of your life otherwise, it may not be an issue.
- What does your experience- and your fear- tell you? Your fear may be telling you that getting back on an agitated horse is indeed a bad idea. So don’t go out and get hurt if it isn’t necessary. If horses aren’t your thing, let it go and move on. Don’t let your humiliation keep you attacking something that isn’t going to service you.
- If you want to approach your fears, what would be the smallest step? Watching a TV show about horses, visiting a barn, feeding a horse, brushing a horse, walking a horse, and hanging out with horses are all behaviors that don’t include absolute avoidance but don’t force you into a situation that is potentially unsafe. You could also ride a smaller, more mellow horse with the help of a trainer.
- If you are going to do the smaller steps, don’t white knuckle it. Relax your facial muscles, soften your jaw, breath slowly/ deeply/ evenly, maintain an open body posture, and take in the situation fully. If this feels threatening, do a smaller step- or limit the time you spend doing the activity. For instance, you could watch a TV show about horses for one minute, five minutes, or fifteen minutes. If this doesn’t challenge you, up the ante by going out to a barn. Find your middle ground, back off when you are overwhelmed, give yourself credit for your efforts, treat yourself kindly, and challenge yourself at some point in the future when you are in a better place.
Recently I went to see an excellent movie: Manchester By the Sea. Here are some thoughts I have about how I would work with Lee.
As a provider of clients who experience intense, severe, and painful emotions; Lee really does fit the bill. General questions that I might consider asking include: What would it take to reduce pain, survive loss, and manage or cope in a way that made things better? What would help Lee feel less stuck? What resources or connections could sustain him better, enable him to bear the weight of his pain, or enhance his quality of life? What could him grieve more fully and to get through this crisis? What is he doing that is working, and what is he doing that is not working? Could he be more likable to himself, sustain the burden or his guilt, or have more fulfilling relationships?
One agenda item I have is getting Lee to stop doing things that could potentially make his current situation worse. Often times I have clients who have severe emotional pain and it is so intense and unbearable that they are looking for any distraction to take away the pain. The distractions sometimes have a short-term effect of feeling better, which makes them hard to stop. However, in most cases these distractions can make problems worse- and are not effective long-term strategies to mitigate the severity of what they feel.
So one treatment agenda is to reduce risk taking or crisis-generating behavior. Specifically, Lee tends to get drunk, pick fights, and throw punches. The natural consequences for this behavior can result in serious injury, concussions, brain damage, head injuries, broken jaw, soreness, swelling, or other various medical trauma. Drinking heavily can result in poor decision-making, hangovers, dehydration, and liver damage. Other natural consequences of his behavior include legal problems, court dates, jail time, being seen as a threat in the community, increased relationship conflict, and isolation. Grabbing the gun of an officer might result in unintended harm to other people. Not only would Lee have the current dilemma of living with the intense and painful losses he has suffered, but he would have to address the above consequences in addition to everything he has already gone through.
Some people actually believe Lee’s behavior is justified. They would say that because he is in unbearable pain, he should be able to act the way he does. Or he should be let “off the hook” because his behavior is understandable. I would encourage those people to consider: Would you recommend your closest confident or best friend- who is deeply hurting- do something that could result in head trauma? Liver disease? Incarceration?
Another “justification” for Lee’s behavior is that he has significant guilt and self-hatred and he is trying to punish himself. After all, the law did not punish him enough! What would be an effective punishment, and how long does he need to punish himself for his actions? Are self-inflicted/ high-risk behaviors actually effective in making him feel less guilty? What if a police officer was shot by accident? What type of effective repair work needs to be done? What lifestyle habits could he change to prevent bad things from happening in the future? What would he need to do to redeem himself in the community? And what would it take for members in the community to find forgiveness, employ him, or tolerate him being around?
How would treatment move Lee towards growth, movement, and decreased pain? There are several ways to approach this- the key being a sensitivity and flexibility to what Lee would be able to handle at the time he seeks help. One is a baseline ability to talk about what happened. As he pieces together his story, there may be parts that are difficult to talk about. Avoiding these topics might show up in the form of escaping, not talking about it, dissociating, becoming numb, becoming argumentative, keeping one’s distance, staying detached, avoiding intimate relationships, leaving, drinking, or even picking more fights. The difficulty is that there are multiple reminders (or stimuli) that will show up throughout his life that he may not be able to avoid. These may include:
- Conversations about young children
- Seeing a house fire in the news
- Talking to his ex, Randi
- Seeing Randi’s newborn
- Getting news that young children die or are dying
- Randi saying “I love you”
For instance, what if he is watching the evening news and suddenly there is coverage about a house fire? What if Lee has a building tenant who loses a child to death, and Lee is present when the tenant tries to discuss it with him? What if Randi tries to contact him again or “shows up” in an unexpected manner? Maybe Lee can try to avoid these situations in the short term, but inevitably life, reminders of life, and young children are the life that surrounds us.
Therapy would work on staying present with emotional discomfort when these topics come up; and doing so in the presence of one or more people. That means not attacking, hiding, or getting drunk. It means being willing to experience grief, pain, discomfort, or tears. It means staying in a conversation and having a willingness to tolerate the stuff that seems unbearable. The more Lee does to avoid it, the worse it is going to get.
Healing results when a person’s grief can be managed, survived, and tolerated. Healing is about experiencing, talking about, and coming to terms with what happened in the presence of others. Healing happens when people can forgive themselves and each other and can make changes to prevent bad things from happening in the future.
Healing doesn’t happen when a person is literally “stuck” in blocking out all things reminding them of pain, and lives a life where they are blind and deaf to such triggers; avoiding any stimulus in real life that will inevitably show up at some point.
Healing doesn’t happen when emotions literally control lives, and people can’t engage a full, meaningful, rich, and productive life as a result. Healing doesn’t happen when there is no compassion for self or others, when there is no forgiveness, and when there are no second chances.