[Content warning: brief non-detailed discussions of suicidality, self-harm, dieting, and exercise.]
So you do something that you want to stop doing. Maybe you procrastinate, or have suicidal thoughts, or hate yourself. How do you fix this? The DBT answer is “chain analysis.”
Chain analysis is a lot of what you do with your individual therapist (as opposed to your skills trainer) in dialectical behavioral therapy. In my opinion, it gets about half of its effect from how unpleasant it is. Instead of talking about what you actually wanted to talk about in therapy, you have to spend fifteen minutes going over in excruciating detail one of the most unpleasant and embarrassing things that happened to you all week. This is clearly a form of therapy designed by a behaviorist.
But as grumpy as I am about them, I think they really have helped me figure out my triggers for suicidality and replace unproductive behaviors with better ones.
I’m going to be using the word “behavior” a lot in this post. “Behavior” doesn’t just refer to actions like riding a bicycle or crying; it also refers to your thoughts, your emotions, or any other specific thing you do. This is not a super-clear usage, but I don’t actually have another word for the concept, so we will all have to suffer through it.
My first tip is to write this down; don’t just go over it in your head. I have forms that I fill out, but I think a piece of paper can do just as well. Writing it down makes it feel a lot more real, and if you have a pile of chain analysis papers it’s easier to notice trends than if you are keeping track of it inside your head.
The first step in a chain analysis is to describe very clearly the behavior you’re trying to fix. In my experience, when you’ve done something you want to stop doing, the last thing you want to do is describe it in great detail. So a lot of times I tend to be like “I had an overwhelming emotional outburst” or “I dissociated” or “I experienced self-hate” or “I had an attenuated delusion.” However, you should be specific: what you want to say “I was afraid that my boyfriend was a robot because his face didn’t look like a face and then I cried because I didn’t want him to be a robot.”
The second step is to describe what prompted the behavior. It’s often hard to think about what prompted my behaviors– my natural impulse is to go “it wasn’t caused by anything! I just started feeling bad for no reason!” However, as I talked about here, one of the basic assumptions of DBT is that there is no such thing as an event without a cause. One question my therapist often asks me is “why did this behavior happen that day instead of the day before?” You can also ask yourself what you were thinking before you did the behavior, or what events happened immediately before the behavior. You should be at least able to identify some potential prompting events; over time, you can track them and notice whether something has changed.
The third step is to talk about what made you vulnerable to doing the behavior. Were you sick or injured or intoxicated? Did you neglect your body– eating too much or too little or the wrong things, sleeping too much or too little, skipping exercise? Had something stressful happened to you– whether it’s good stress (a person you admire wants to talk to you) or bad stress (running late)? Were you remembering bad things you’d done in the past?
The fourth step is to describe in excruciating detail the chain of events that connected the prompting event to the behavior. This is the chain in the chain analysis. These may include things you did, things you felt in your body, your thoughts, your emotions, or events in the environment. This is where having a therapist helps. Your therapist can be like “hmm, I don’t understand what the connection is between your friend saying that they were busy this weekend and you breaking into tears”, and then you can say “oh! I thought they secretly hated me and that’s why they didn’t want to hang out.” So if you’re doing this on your own you will have to be very careful to make sure each item follows logically from the previous item and you aren’t leaving anything out. Many chain analyses have a dozen items; some have more.
The fifth step is to describe all the consequences of your behavior. Be sure to include both positive and negative, short-term and long-term, and on you and on others. The positive consequences are particularly important: after all, you wouldn’t do this shit if you didn’t get something out of it. If you know what the positive consequences are, you can work on making sure you get them in a less costly and more desirable way.
The sixth step is to look at your nice chain of events. For each link in the chain, describe something better you could have done. For instance, you could say “when my friend said they were busy, I could have asked them what they were doing; when I thought my friend secretly hated me, I could have instead thought about the evidence for and against the claim that my friend secretly hated me; when I broke into tears, I could have turned on a TV show I like to comfort myself.” It’s particularly important to figure out which links have the potential to break the chain: for instance, it might be that if you had asked your friend what they were doing, you would have found out that they’d gotten concert tickets to their favorite band, and you wouldn’t have worried that they secretly hated you at all.
Basically, the idea here is complete fucking overkill. Sometimes, you’re going to remember to ask your friend what they’re doing, but if you don’t, you have to have the plan to deal with your distorted thoughts, and if you fuck up that plan, you have to have a plan to deal with your negative emotions. Every battle plan lasts until contact with the enemy. You don’t just need a plan A; you need plans B, C, L, Q, A1, E4, and Kumquat.
The seventh step is to look at the factors that made you vulnerable, back in step three. How can you make sure those aren’t a factor? For instance, you might need to bookmark the seven-minute exercise video so you can get your exercise even when you’re incredibly busy, or bring some pretzels in your bag so you don’t get hungry. This is further complete fucking overkill; it’s trying to make sure you don’t need those plans by keeping the prompting event from affecting you so much in the first place.
The eighth and final step is thinking about how to repair the consequences of your behavior. What did you harm? Is there a way you can fix it? It’s important, whenever possible, to try to repair the thing you damaged. Many people get this wrong! They’re like “well, I broke a promise to my friend, so I should bring her flowers.” Unless the promise was to bring her flowers, that’s not right; the thing you broke wasn’t her ability to have flowers, it was her ability to trust you. Instead, you should apologize (once), say how you’ll plan to fix that in the future, and actually do it. Sometimes repairing the wrong thing can even make people feel pressured to forgive you since you’re being so nice– even though you haven’t taken any steps towards fixing what you actually did wrong. On the other hand, if the negative consequence of your behavior was that you made your friend sad, bringing her flowers might work.
Repairing what you broke is also an important rule for yourself: if you hurt yourself by missing an important job interview, the way you repair the consequence is by being on time next time, not by berating yourself. Your problem was not that you didn’t berate yourself enough; your problem is that you weren’t on time.
Now, sometimes you’re trying to do a behavior, rather than not do one. Can chain analyses still work? Yep! After the first step, where you describe what you didn’t do, think about why you didn’t do it. Did you procrastinate, or think “nope, I don’t want to do that”, or throw an internal tantrum about having to do it? Did some other behavior– whether an emotion, thought, or action– get in the way of your ability to do it? If so, just do the rest of the chain analysis, targeting your procrastination, lack of desire, internal tantrum, or other behavior.
On the other hand, did you forget, or not understand what you were supposed to do, or never know that you were supposed to do the thing in the first place? In that case, skip ahead to problem-solving: how can you learn how to do what you’re supposed to do, or stop forgetting things?
Or was it not possible to do the thing you were supposed to do? Maybe you’d planned to work on a blog post, but you forgot your laptop, or maybe you’d planned to talk to someone when you were upset instead of cutting, but no one was available. In that case, plan both for how to prevent those sorts of situations (maybe your laptop should live in your bag) and how to deal with them when they arise (maybe you should have a file of fanfics to read when you’re upset).