Whenever casual conversation turns toward the topic of my profession, I am invariably asked, “Does being a therapist make you a better parent?”
Jokes about therapist’s kids aside, the simplest answer to this is not really. Yes, it’s true that knowledge of child development and behavioral principles can come in handy sometimes, but by and large we therapists are faced with the same parenting challenges and rewards as everyone else. Being a therapist does not endow us with kids who somehow listen the first time, behave appropriately, and clean up after themselves. Being people, we are susceptible to the same emotions and behavioral reactions that all humans have.
At the same time, it’s exactly where those emotions come into play that therapy training has something significant to add.
I practice a form of therapy called DBT, or dialectical behavioral therapy. Without getting too technical, this therapy is aimed at helping people who have significant difficulty managing their emotions and behaviors, and who are often labeled “manipulative” and “difficult.” In cases like these, therapists often find that they are subject to a string of emotional forces as well. These are the patients who often elicit strong emotional reactions in our interactions, much like children do to their parents.
For example, have you ever tried to help someone who’s asked for your help, only to realize that afterward they aren’t actually doing any of the things you suggested? Or that they dismiss every suggestion as you make it, then get upset with you for not giving them a good solution to their problem? (or not solving the problem for them).
This experience and others like it happen sometimes to just about everyone in the helping field – therapists, parents, teachers, rabbis, coaches, etc. When it does, the tendency is to become angry with the person you are trying to help. Clearly, you think, this is why they are having so many problems! We tend to conclude that they simply don’t want to improve and would rather be miserable, perhaps because they like the attention, or don’t like the responsibility, or because change is hard.
We then decide that this individual wouldn’t act this way if they really wanted to improve. The greater our desire to help, and the greater our efforts and emotional investment, the more likely we are to take this attitude. Except it is rarely helpful; It brings us into a judgmental and blameful place that prevents what we’re trying to accomplish – facilitate this person’s growth.
This is where DBT offers a way of thinking to keep us in a position of helping instead of allowing our own frustrations to overtake us. Here are three core assumptions in DBT therapy; that people want to improve their lives, they are doing their best, and they need to improve their efforts and motivation.
People want to improve.
No matter what behavior a person exhibits, we maintain the belief that they want to improve their life. The beauty of this assumption is that it is just a belief. We don’t require proof or evidence, we simply believe that no matter what, this person wants their life to be better. Nobody actually wants to be miserable, even if someone seems that way in an attempt to gain sympathy or give themselves an excuse to not grow or change. The fact is, this person does want to improve their life – they just go about it in such a way that doesn’t help them.
Rather than conclude that this behavior means they don’t want to get better, or that they are being manipulative, we are left asking why they are acting this way. We may not know the answer, but it’s a start to a helpful direction. We’re open to possibility rather than closed in our conclusion.
People are doing their best.
At any given moment, our efforts in life are impacted by a number of factors: how we were brought up, our recent and distant experiences, our mood, how hungry, stressed, or tired we are, etc. How and to what extent each factor influences us varies from moment to moment, but at any point in time they are present. Therefore, each moment represents the “best” of our efforts at that exact moment. Concluding that this person isn’t making an effort leads us back to blame and judgment, which is not conducive to helping a person change. On the other hand, if we hold on to the assumption that this person is doing their best right now, we can maintain a position of curiosity and patience that is more likely to help.
People need to improve their efforts and motivation.
But wait, doesn’t this contradict what we just said about people doing their best? Yes, it does and no it does not. This is an example of a dialectic, which is two seemingly opposite concepts that coexist. In other words, both of these statements are true at the same time. (Dialectic is the “D” in “DBT” and is a highly useful concept- more on this in a later post). It is true that at any given moment people are trying their best and it is also true that they need to improve their efforts. Life’s problems require an effective response, and this person’s best effort at this moment may not be enough. Moreover, if we hold only the assumption that people are trying their best, we are unlikely to make any progress. If we only assume that people need to improve their efforts, we get caught in the trap of just “try harder’ – a meaningless phrase in itself. We need to hold both assumptions together; people are doing the best they can, and in order to move further people need to improve their efforts in a certain way.
So where does this leave us?
Whether you are a parent, teacher, mentor, or anyone else in a leadership position, take a moment to think of a particular person or situation that brings up feelings of anger and frustration. It is in those situations that we falter in our mission. Rather than encourage growth, we likely assume, judge, and blame. We would do well to practice applying the assumptions above.
Reimagine the person or situation you thought of just now, and ask yourself what it might be like to remind yourself, in that moment, that this person wants things to improve and for life to be good for them. Imagine what it would be like to remember that this person is doing their best, subject to their human experience of the moment, and also that there is also something that they need to be doing differently.
If we can make a habit of reimagining such situations then we can get better at putting this new way of thinking into practice when we need it most in order to respond effectively to frustrating situations. Importantly, these same assumptions apply to us as well; life has its challenges and it’s all too easy to get caught up in self-criticism or complacency. Holding onto the idea that we do want things to be better, that at this moment we are doing the best we can and that we also need to improve can help us remain effective.
I think these skills do help us as parents, and in various other roles, in how we choose to respond.
At the same time, this is only the beginning, since the person we are speaking with is still acting in ways that are not effective. How we can continue to help them is the discussion for my next upcoming blog post, coming soon….