I’ve recently started going to How Not To Kill Yourself Class, otherwise known as DBT Skills Training. So I thought I’d write up some of what I’m taught in the class, partially for my own reference and partially because I hope it’ll help other people.
So first I’m going to talk about some basic assumptions about how people work.
One important caveat is that all of these assumptions are framing, much more than empirical differences. I tend to adopt the “people are basically good and doing the best they can” framing, while Topher tends to adopt the “people are selfish bastards” framing. But we’ve discovered that we don’t actually predict different things. It’s just that when I see (say) developed countries’ neglect of developing countries, I’m like “oh, stupid scope insensitivity, getting in the way of people’s basic compassion– too bad it’s so hard to get rid of”, whereas Topher is like “ugh, people don’t care about the developing world.” However, some framings are more useful than other framings, and I think these happen to be fairly useful ones.
DBT works from the assumption that people are doing the best they can. No one wakes up in the morning and is like “I know! I’m going to blow off all my responsibilities, piss off all my friends, and do a bunch of self-destructive behaviors for no reason! That sounds great! I love making it impossible for myself to reach my own goals!” No one is like “wow, you know what sounds awesome? Developing an eating disorder!” No one is like “I’m very satisfied by all aspects of my life and there are no problems I’m facing that I can’t cope with. Killing myself sounds like a really good idea!”
Furthermore, everything you do, everything you feel, everything you think, has a reason. You might not know what the reason is; in fact, most people aren’t always aware of the reasons for their thoughts. And even when they are aware, a lot of times they don’t want to admit it to themselves, because it seems petty, or stupid, or not in line with their own self-image. Nevertheless, you do not do things for literally no reason; your behaviors have a cause and it’s probably a sensible cause, all things considered.
So why do people behave in such counterproductive ways? A bunch of reasons. They might not know how to respond in a better way: if the only strategy you have for dealing with sadness is getting drunk, of course you’re going to abuse alcohol, because you– quite naturally– don’t want to be sad. They might have inaccurate beliefs: for instance, that everyone is out to get them. They might have constraints: if you’re tired all the time, you’re probably going to neglect some of the things you ought to do.
The problem is that your best isn’t good enough. I mean, if mine were, I wouldn’t have to be in How Not To Kill Yourself Class, and you wouldn’t be reading this essay. But I think this is pretty much the human condition, actually: pretty much everyone has some dumbass thing that they constantly keep doing even though their life would be 100% better if they stopped– whether it’s skipping workouts, self-sabotaging relationships, or spending too much money.
When we notice that we’re doing some dumbass thing, our natural response is to go “ugh! Why am I such a dumbass? I need to stop doing this stupid shit!” The problem is that this is not actually a good way of solving problems. In my two decades of yelling at myself about what a terrible person I am, I have never not once found that yelling at myself about what a terrible person I am fixed anything. In fact, it usually makes the problem worse.
Instead, you need to figure out why you’re behaving that way. When you pick pointless fights with your partner, is it because you feel like someone being angry at you means they really love you? Because your partner is being controlling and asserting yourself about stupid stuff gives you some sense of power you desperately need? Because you don’t know how else to manage your annoyance (mostly at people who aren’t your partner)? Because you never learned how to handle conflict without fighting? Because your partner gets annoyed at you being upset, and then you’re more upset because they’re annoyed, and they’re more annoyed because you’re upset, and it escalates from there?
The thing is that all of those are solvable problems. You can learn conflict resolution or emotion regulation skills, ask your partner to hide their annoyance better or give you more signs of affection, teach yourself to believe that passion can be expressed through things other than fights, or (particularly in the case of the controlling partner) break up. Conversely, “UGH, why can’t I just go ONE DAY without fighting with my partner? I am a TERRIBLE boyfriend and a TERRIBLE person” is unlikely to solve much of anything.
(The same thing applies to other people, in my experience. An ounce of problem-solving is worth a pound of blame.)
One important thing about changing your behavior is that you have to learn how to change your behavior across a variety of different contexts. A lot of times, people think that if they’re able to control their emotions on the job, they should be able to control their emotions at home. Now, as it happens, I have a variety of different mental health conditions that make it really difficult for me to generalize skills. (Fun fact: when I was in college, every two months I would have an epiphany about being able to buy [insert food here] whenever I want to, because “I can buy gummies whenever I want to” never generalized into “I can buy any food whenever I want to.”) But I think similar things apply to other people: we all know people who can set boundaries with their friends but not their parents, or take criticism at work but not from their romantic partners. This is totally normal and okay and not a sign that you’re broken or anything. It just means that you need to practice your “setting boundaries” or “taking criticism” skills in a variety of situations.
Finally, a lot of people are like “actually, it’s my partner’s fault that we fight all the time. They’re picky and argumentative and can never just let something go. So I shouldn’t have to change my behavior! It’s not my fault!” The problem with this line of reasoning is that you cannot actually control what your partner does. Certainly you can try to influence it– you can be sweet to them, or not bring up topics that set them off, or whatever– but what your partner decides to do is, ultimately, up to your partner. (Attempting to control what your partner does is called ‘emotional abuse’, and is generally not recommended.) What you can control is what you do.
Now, let me be clear about what I’m saying here. It is perfectly reasonable to be like “well, I know that my boss is a lot more likely to listen to my ideas when I bring in donuts, so I’m going to do that.” It is not reasonable to be like “the existence of sugary breakfast food should not affect my boss’s opinion of me, that’s stupid, so I’m not going to bring in any donuts.” It is perfectly reasonable to be like “my partner is a dick, I’m breaking up with them.” It is not reasonable to be like “I am going to stay in this relationship, but I’m also not going to take any steps to fix it, because they should fix it, because it’s their fault.” You can’t make other people do shit they should do. You can make you do shit you should do.
Mucho wisdom 🙂
When I try to analyze the reasons why I do things, I end up with a bunch of conflicting intuitions, complicated to an unknown degree by self-serving biases, alternately subverted and reinforced by various facts I think I know about human psychology.
After spending decades trying to hack my way out of that thicket, I’m increasingly pessimistic that it will ever happen — at least, not in the final and definitive way I imagined when I was younger. While that pessimism doesn’t currently make me feel suicidal, it has serious implications for my self-concept, and is, I suspect, making me unpleasant to be around.
It seems like the happiest people are those who either don’t think about it at all, or are willing to accept (what are to me) obviously glib answers. That pisses me off in a completely irrational way.
Anyway, I have no deep insights to impart, but I think a lot of us struggle with the same basic problems. I hope the class is valuable to you, and I really hope you don’t kill yourself. FWIW, at least one random stranger on the internet really enjoys your writing.
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> Fun fact: when I was in college, every two months I would have an epiphany about being able to buy [insert food here] whenever I want to, because “I can buy gummies whenever I want to” never generalized into “I can buy any food whenever I want to.”
I find this interesting. You seem to have generalised it now, otherwise you presumably wouldn’t be able to give that example. So what made the difference? Is it just that you got there after enough individual epiphanies, did someone point out the general case for you, or have you developed an explicit method for noticing things-I-haven’t-generalised?
I was *consciously* aware of the fact that I could buy any food whenever I want to; it just didn’t occur to me as a possible action e.g. within the store.
Lawrence D'Anna said:
“The problem with this line of reasoning is that you cannot actually control what your partner does”
I think this is a very general point. There are so many things that we talk about in the human / social realm as if they were properties of people, or actions, but we should not forget that they are also properties of ourselves.
“Is Bob morally responsible and blameworthy for this particular action?” is a question that has as much to do with the relationship that the *asker* of the question has with Bob, and what range of options they have to influence Bob’s behavior in the future; as it does with Bob himself.
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