Breaking Down a Main DBT Assumption

Breaking Down a Main DBT Assumption

One of the main assumptions in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is that we are all doing the best we can, AND also, we need to do better and try harder. This is acceptance and change. There is almost always questioning about this from clients, and rightfully so. 

If someone is doing the best they can, why do they need to do better? Or, if they need to do better, how can you assume or say that they are doing the best they can?

This is where the importance of mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness has many meanings, including the idea and acknowledgement that we, as human beings, are living fully in the present moment. Time is constantly passing. As such, there are things going on at any moment that affect how we feel and function.

Here are some examples that may be helpful:

You take a math test. You are an excellent math student and consistently get good grades. You get your test back and you got a C. You begin to get upset and turn that anger inward. You didn’t study as much as you usually do. You were unfocused during the exam. You always memorize the formulas and forget some of them completely while taking the exam.

Your therapist says that you did the best you could. In a reasonable mind that doesn’t make sense to you because logically, and you have proof, all of your grades have been higher and a lower grade is not your best. That is a fact.

Your therapist will then likely ask you to acknowledge what is going on in your life, or in that moment. Maybe you’ve been struggling with anxiety more than usual. Maybe you’ve gotten in a fight with your parents or a friend. Maybe you’ve experienced a loss. Maybe you were physically sick.

It also doesn’t have to be an event. Maybe you slept poorly the night before. Or, maybe you usually eat breakfast yet rushed out of the house that day with no time to fuel yourself. There are many different things that could have been happening in the moments of time that passed while you were taking your test.

The idea is that if your intention was to do well on the test, you did the best you could with what you could do at the moment.

What if you purposely self-sabotaged? What if you didn’t care? What if you decided to just not study? You may be thinking that it was most definitely not your best effort and not your best score.

You may then explore with your therapist why that was. What were the reasons you did that? Did you need to use certain skills you didn’t yet have?  Is your depression or anxiety worsening? What happened that led to you not caring and not studying?

Again, you did the best you could in those moments, with some sort of factors or thoughts affecting you, and some of those factors and thoughts can be repaired for the future through working on new skills and new ways of thinking.

The idea is that DBT is forward-seeking.

We want to acknowledge and accept what happened, we want to look at what was happening in that moment or before the moment to understand, and then we want to focus on doing better and trying harder.

What happens if we don’t? We may spend time and energy beating ourselves up. We may get angry at ourselves, or the teacher, or life in general. When we do, we turn pain into suffering. It sucks to feel like you didn’t do your best and it is important to either problem solve or do a cope-ahead plan for next time. Doing so is a more productive use of energy AND it will help you do better next time. It helps you make fewer thinking mistakes like, “I suck at everything,” “Life is awful,” or “I will never get into college with a C on a test.”

Another example that I use with my clients is to think of baking chocolate chip cookies. Let’s say you make a batch that doesn’t taste good. Maybe you make them all the time, or maybe you are a novice baker. Usually, the instinct is to go back to the recipe and try to see where things went wrong. Was there a missing ingredient? Too much of an ingredient? Too much or too little time in the oven? Did you get distracted? Interrupted? You will likely find, if not the whole answer to the error, some new direction you can use the next time.

The trick is recognizing that you may not have done the best you potentially could, and going back and looking at the “ingredients” in the “not your best” situation, learning from the circumstances, learning more skills over time, and then applying them. Taking steps backward happens.

The DBT skills of Radical Acceptance and Riding the Wave can be helpful here.  Moment to moment, things change or get more challenging or less challenging. These are the waves, and we learn so much from riding them.

On the flip side, you may think… “If I am doing my best, why do I need to do better?” When we sit with “oh well, this is my best, this is all I got” thoughts, we are more likely to stay stagnant or move backwards. The idea of working harder and doing better does not invalidate the work you have already done, which in the moment, was your best! The idea is to find motivation in the fact that when you move forward, you may end up surprising yourself and recognizing that your potential knows no bounds. You likely will. The more we do something, the better we become.

You got this!

Authored by:  Jaime Gleicher, LMSW