[Content warning: descriptions of abuse.]
This is the last post in the DBT sequence! Yeesh.
I talked about dialectics for the first time all the way back at the beginning, and now I’m going to talk about it again, before talking about one dialectic that is really useful for interpersonal relationships: the dialectic between validation and change. Dialectics is the alternative to black-and-white thinking and polarization, both of which are particularly common among people with emotion regulation issues, but which everyone is prone to from time to time. Here are some examples of opposites that can both be true:
- You are independent, and you need help.
- You want to be alone, and you want connection with others.
- You can accept yourself the way you are and want to change.
- Someone else can have valid reasons for wanting something from you, and you can have valid reasons for saying no.
- You can be mad at someone and still love and respect them. (You can be mad at yourself, and still love and respect yourself.)
- You can be doing the best you can, and still need to do better and try harder.
- You can understand the motivations for someone’s behavior, and also think that it’s wrong and the person ought to change it.
- You can be around others, and be lonely.
Similarly, here are some examples of opposites one might need to dialectically balance:
- Work and rest.
- Self-validation and acknowledging mistakes.
- Openness and privacy.
- Observation and participation.
- Self-improvement and self-acceptance.
- Problem-solving and problem acceptance.
- Caring about yourself and caring about others.
- Emotion regulation and emotion acceptance.
Here are four lessons that one can learn from dialectics:
There’s more than one side to each situation. There’s more than one way to look at a situation; there’s more than one way to solve a problem. Two things that seem like opposites can both be true. Consider different points of view. People who disagree with you can still have correct opinions. Remember that people don’t do or believe things for literally no reason: their behavior and thoughts make sense from their own point of view.
Ask yourself: what am I missing? What truth does the opposing view hold? Let go of extremes: think “sometimes” instead of “always” and “never”, think “both/and” instead of “either/or”. Be willing to play devil’s advocate. It can help to use metaphors, storytelling, or analogies to understand other points of view. Be willing to say “I don’t know”. Embrace confusion; embrace paradoxes. Turn lemons into lemonade: do what works, the best you can with what you have. Listen instead of attacking. Believe in nuance. Be curious, not furious.
I am human, and nothing human is alien to me. On a fundamental level, we’re all monkeys with pretensions. There are a lot of differences between different humans, but ultimately, we’re all running the same hardware. We’re much more similar to each other than we are to anything else in this universe, because we are the only things that can think.
Treat other people the way you want to be treated. Look for similarities with other people, instead of differences. This is practical, not moral: kindness opens doors which cruelty cannot unlock.
The only thing that doesn’t change is change. Nothing is constant. Every time it seems like you’ve gotten things settled, they change on you again. Your moods, your relationships, even the cells of your body: nothing stays the same. If I wanted to be all New-Agey-physics-metaphor-from-a-person-who-doesn’t-know-physics, I would point out that even something as static as a wall is composed of atoms which are always moving and thus always changing.
Throw yourself into change. Don’t just allow it; embrace it. Accept the unpredictable. Accepting change can be particularly hard if your relationships are tenuous: it feels like everything that changes means that you’re going to be abandoned. If you have a hard time coping with change, practice getting used to change: talk to people you don’t normally talk to, sit in a different place, or drive a new route to work.
Change is transactional. What we do influences our environment and other people; what the environment and other people do influences us. Pay attention both to your effect on others and their effect on you. Let go of blame by thinking about how both your actions and other people’s are caused by many interactions over time. They aren’t evil, you are not under attack, and you should calm the fuck down. Remember that people do things for reasons. Beware the fundamental attribution error, where we assume that we kick the vending machine, it’s because we had a bad day, but if someone else kicks the vending machine, it’s because they’re a fundamentally angry person. (Beware of it, as well, with regards to yourself. Many people, particularly those with a tendency towards depression, assume that every mistake they make means they are fundamentally awkward, ugly, stupid, evil, or just plain bad.)
Validation is finding the grain of truth in other people’s perspectives on the situation. It’s understanding that people think, feel, and do things for reasons that make sense to them. Validation can help people feel listened to and understood, which improves relationships and makes it easier to solve problems, become closer, and support people through difficulties.
Even if the relationship isn’t important to you, validating other people can be useful. People are usually more reasonable and behave better when they’ve been validated. When someone adamantly disagrees with you, showing them that you understand their point of view can get them to think about other possibilities a lot more effectively than telling them about the other possibilities. They don’t experience the same pressure to prove that they’re right. Oftentimes, skillfully validating someone can get them to settle down and be less angry. (People who are in relationships with borderlines: validation is magic borderline crack. It’s astonishing how a simple “you’re really sad” can calm a tantrum.) And a lot of people find that validating others makes them feel like a person who has integrity and is fair, which improves their self-respect.
Validation does not mean that you agree with the other person. They can believe something for reasons that make sense to them and still be wrong. It doesn’t mean that you like their behavior. If somebody is doing something that hurts you, it still hurts you even if they have a tragic backstory that explains it. And it doesn’t mean validating things that are invalid. If someone had a rough day and screamed at you, validation is saying “lots of people get angry after a hard day”– not “it’s okay that you screamed, honey!” If someone’s frightened of red-haired men because of a traumatic experience in their past, validation is saying “I can see why that would scare you, because on some subconscious level you’d learned that redheaded men are dangerous”– not “that guy was kind of creepy, I bet he’s out to get you.”
There are three things you can validate. First, the facts of the situation: “this room is a mess”, “that guy cut you off.” Second, the person’s experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions: “you seem really sad”, “when I was taking calculus, I was so worried about my ability to pass it”. Third, the person’s suffering and difficulties: “you must be going through a really hard time right now”, “wow, that seems really difficult.” You can validate those things in one of six different ways.
Pay Attention. Look interested, listen, observe, and stay focused on them Make eye contact, if you can. Nod occasionally. Smile if they say something happy; look concerned if they say something sad. No multitasking! When the person is talking, put down your phone.
“Mm. I see.”
Reflect Back. Say back to the person what you’ve just heard them say. For instance, if they’ve been describing the dozen minor annoyances that happened to them, say “Oof. Sounds like a rough day.” If your child says they would like cookies for dinner instead of green beans, say “of course you want cookies, they’re delicious.” You don’t have to agree with people; just express what you see them saying. Avoid disagreeing, criticizing, or trying to change the person’s mind, at least in this stage; have an open mind. Be very careful to avoid anything that comes off as sarcasm or judgmental language: if people think you’re mocking them, they will feel very invalidated. Don’t be robotic: if you use a formula like “I hear you saying X about Y”, then people will catch on that you’re just plugging nouns into a sentence instead of really engaging with them. Try to seem open to correction in your wording and voice tone. And if you don’t get it, don’t pretend that you do. Saying “I don’t understand, but I want to” is incredibly validating.
“You’re mad at me because you think I lied to get back at you, is that right?”
Read Minds. Reflecting back is about what they are saying; reading minds is about what they aren’t saying. Pay attention to facial expressions, body language, what’s happening, and what you know about the person already. If someone is shivering, ask if they’re cold; if it’s been a while since they ate, ask if they’re hungry. Try to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you’d feel. Then check it with them: “you must feel angry.” If they disagree– “no, I’m actually scared’– that’s okay; let it go, and don’t get in an argument with them about how they’re feeling. (You have no idea how many people do this.) Even if you don’t get it right, just guessing improves the relationship. Now, you may be thinking “Ozy, didn’t you write about how we shouldn’t try to read minds and guess what other people are thinking?” Yep. Dialectics. The key is to be aware that your attempts at reading other people’s minds are guesses, and may not be true.
“You must feel like I betrayed you– I know loyalty is really important to you.”
Understand. Try to figure out the causes of the person’s actions, thoughts, or feelings: the person’s history, features of the present situation, the person’s mood, or the person’s physical condition. Listen for the grain of truth, how it makes sense, even if the belief is wrong or you disagree with their behavior. Think about how your friend might be snappish because they’re under stress at work, or your girlfriend might be frightened because she was hurt in the past. Say “it makes sense that you… because…” Try to make the other person think “oh! This person gets me!” Be careful not to pretend to understand when you don’t; instead, admit your ignorance and work to understand. It’s okay to say “I’m totally lost, can you help me understand?”
“I can see why you thought that I lied: I told you something that wasn’t true.”
Acknowledge the Valid. Look for ways in which the person’s actions, thoughts, or feelings are a logical response to the current situation. Now, of course, everyone behaves in illogical ways sometimes; no one behaves in a 100% valid way all the time. But be willing to look for ways in which the response is valid. Be careful not to allow “acknowledging the valid” to collapse into “I am causing their behavior because of what a terrible person I am”; it is totally possible that– even if there’s conflict– both you and the other person are responding in valid ways given the situations.
“It makes sense that you’re angry: it was a pretty serious betrayal of trust.”
Show Equality. Be yourself. Don’t one-up the other person. Treat them as an equal, not as someone who’ll break in a harsh wind or who’s incapable of doing anything write. Admit mistakes. Admit when you’re wrong. Know that you aren’t better from other people. Introduce yourself by first name if the other person introduces themselves by their first name. Ask other people for their opinions. Avoid defensiveness. Be careful in giving advice or telling other people what to do when you weren’t asked, and remember you could be wrong. Don’t try to protect other people from the world. Don’t say “my pain is worse than yours!” Don’t say “you haven’t changed and you’re never going to!” Don’t attribute other people’s legitimate emotions to mental illness.
The opposite of validation is invalidation. It’s easy to assume that validation is always good and invalidation is always bad; however, that’s not true. Invalidation can be helpful if it corrects a mistake you’re making, or if it helps you grow as a person by listening to someone else’s point of view. On the other hand, invalidation is harmful when you’re being ignored, misunderstood, treated unequally, or disbelieved when you’re telling the truth, or when your experiences are being ignored, trivialized or denied.
Even helpful invalidation can be painful: many people feel ashamed, angry, defensive, or embarrassed when they’re invalidated– especially when someone else is telling them what they think, or if they already feel ashamed or guilty about the thing they’re being invalidated about. Conversely, harmful invalidation is often not done by people who are intending to be jerks: they might be trying to be helpful, or they might just not be thinking. And harmful invalidation still has the grain of truth in it– it’s still true that people don’t believe things for literally no reason.
Because helpful invalidation can be painful, as a general rule, try saying or doing five validating things for each invalidating thing you say. That lightens the blow and makes the person feel like you’re on their side.
To recover from invalidation, remind yourself that you are doing your best, and that there are reasons for all behavior– both yours and that of the person who invalidated you. Admit that invalidation hurts– even if they’re right! The other person’s correctness doesn’t magically make the pain of invalidation go away. But remember as well that, while painful, invalidation is something you can survive. It’s not the end of the world. It can feel like a catastrophe because your fight-or-flight reflexes are running, you have past negative experiences, or you don’t know how to cope, but you will get through this. Consider self-soothing until you calm down.
Radically accept your experience of invalidation and the invalidating person. This one sucks, I know. Remember that people are what they are– the person continues to exist whether you accept them or not. Invalidation is not a disaster, you can recover, and you are stronger than you think you are.
Check all the facts to see if there were invalid elements to your response. Ask yourself, “what makes them say that? What did I do?” Consider talking to someone whose judgment you trust and asking them for their input. It hurts like hell– it’s probably worse than radical acceptance– and is pretty much the last thing you want to do once you’ve been invalidated, but you have to do it. If your responses don’t make sense, acknowledge it and work to change it– especially if you’re someone who tends to be reactive or impulsive. And stop blaming, it rarely helps. If your reactions are valid, acknowledge that; it can help to describe your experiences in a supportive environment, which provides validation that can counteract the invalidation you experienced.
Some people experienced traumatic invalidation: they may have grown up in a neglectful household in which their parents told them they weren’t hungry or cold when they were; they may have been in an abusive relationship with a partner who told them that they were happy and the relationship was loving and they were just confused; they may have been raped and had to hide their pain to avoid upsetting people or perform pain they didn’t feel so that other people would think they’re a real rape survivor. If you’ve experienced traumatic invalidation, that’s going to sensitize you to even minor or healthy cases of invalidation, probably for the rest of your life. It’s okay. It just means that you’re going to have to make extra effort to respond effectively to invalidation.
Experiencing invalidation can cause you to self-invalidate. When someone says “ugh, you just need to have a positive attitude!” in response to you describing a life problem, you can think “they’re right, I do need to have a positive attitude, and if I did then all my problems would go away. I’m so stupid for not being able to be cheerful about this.” Be careful not to think judgmentally about yourself after you’ve been invalidated. It hurts, and it actually makes it harder to figure out what’s valid and what’s invalid, because you’ve taken you mind off the facts. Practice opposite action by deliberately thinking non-judgmental thoughts.
In general: validate yourself exactly as you would validate someone else. Don’t give yourself a complete pass on your shit, but understand that your thoughts and beliefs are legitimate. Don’t call yourself a drama queen; don’t feel guilty about valid emotions. Tell yourself that it makes sense that you’d be hurt. When you make a mistake, remind yourself that you’re just a monkey and everyone makes mistakes. Stand up for yourself inside your mind if you’re correct and your behavior is reasonable. Don’t think of yourself as screwed up or damaged goods, call your behavior stupid, or insult yourself. Don’t call yourself a wimp if you feel sad or alone. Don’t blame or punish yourself when you’re wrong. Try to approach yourself with understanding and compassion, and remember that you behave the way you do for reasons that make sense to you.
Reinforcement is one of the core ideas of behaviorism. You can use reinforcement learning on other people, or on yourself. I’m mostly going to talk about using it on other people, but the same principles apply.
Reinforcement often happens on a subconscious level. Sometimes people think “oh, if I do this I get the reward”, but often they just find themselves doing the thing without you saying anything. Everyone is more likely to do things that they’re being rewarded for. If every time you go to a restaurant, the waiters smile at you and are very friendly, you’ll probably go back, but you probably won’t consciously think “oh, I’m going to this restaurant so that the waiter will smile at me.” You’ll probably just think “oh, that’s a good restaurant.”
A reinforcer is any consequence that increases the frequency of a desired behavior. Most of the time, people think “positive reinforcement” means rewards, but “negative reinforcement” means punishment. That isn’t actually true, although it sounds like that’s what those words mean. Positive reinforcement is reinforcing a behavior by adding something that the person wants or likes, and negative reinforcement is reinforcing a behavior by taking away something the person hates or doesn’t want. If I say “if you do your homework, I’m going to buy you a candy bar,” then that’s positive reinforcement; if I say “if you do your homework, I’m going to turn off the music that I like and you don’t,” then that’s negative reinforcement.
To achieve behavioral change, practice shaping. Imagine that you were trying to teach a dog to fetch your newspaper. You wouldn’t begin by saying “I’m only going to reward the dog when it brings in the newspaper!”, because how is the dog supposed to know that it’s going to get a reward for that? Instead, you reward the dog for small steps towards the desired behavior. You start by rewarding it for going outside; once it’s learned that behavior, you switch to rewarding it for going near the newspaper; and so on and so forth.
Reinforce behavior immediately after it occurs, or as close to immediately as you can. When you’re reinforcing creatures that can’t talk (animals, babies), reward immediately; otherwise they’ll have no idea what you’re reinforcing them for. When you’re rewarding adult humans, you can get away with a bit of a delay, as long as you make it clear what behavior got them the reinforcement. Otherwise, they’ll just think you’re giving them nice things for no reason.
When you’re shaping a new behavior, at first reinforce every instance of the behavior. As the behavior is established, gradually start to reinforce only some of the time. Varied reinforcement makes the behavior very hard to stop, so be careful! (Gambling and some computer games are addictive because they provide rewards on a varied-reinforcement schedule. Of course, you’re unlikely to be as good at reinforcement as the professionals who design games, but you should still be careful what you reinforce.)
If you’re in a position of power over someone (boss, teacher, parent), you can be very blatant about your reinforcement: “if you get a good grade I’ll buy you those shoes you’ve been wanting.” For most egalitarian relationships, that’s seen as condescending or manipulative. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t reinforce people! You just have to be subtle. For instance, many people find heartfelt appreciation very rewarding: “thank you for doing the dishes, it really made my day easier.” You might say, “this kitchen was so nice and clean, I felt like baking cookies! Want one?” I often wind up jumping up and down, squealing and clapping, but that might not work as well for you unless you also typically behave like a five-year-old.
What if someone’s doing something you don’t want them to do? First, think about whether you’re reinforcing the behavior somehow. Loved ones of people with borderline personality disorder wind up in this trap a lot. Many people with BPD are distressed when their loved ones have social plans, leaving them alone. Now, imagine that every time the person with BPD cries, their loved one cancels their social plans and spends time with her instead. Naturally, this makes the borderline cry more. This is not to say that the person with BPD is deliberately being manipulative! Remember, reinforcement learning happens subconsciously. One effective strategy for helping people with borderline personality disorder is comforting them a little, but not canceling your plans, no matter how distressed they seem.
But people accidentally reinforce behavior all the time in non-mental-illness-related contexts. For instance, if you set aside everything to pay attention to her when she has a problem, then of course she’s going to come to you with problems; if you let your girlfriend get her way when she insults you, then of course she’s going to insult you. Removing the reinforcement of a behavior typically leads to an “extinction burst”, in which the behavior gets much worse, as the person subconsciously escalates to see whether this will get the reward. Hold firm. If you continue to not reward the behavior, it will eventually decrease.
Second, think about the goal of the behavior. If the behavior is trying to meet a legitimate need, provide the thing the person needs before the behavior occurs. Again, this is a key skill in dealing with people with borderline personality disorder: providing a steady diet of attention and praise decreases the risk that they will solicit praise dysfunctionally. If you are ignoring your friend who complains too much except when she complains, make an effort to spend time with her; if insulting you allows your girlfriend to end conflicts that have gotten too heated, be proactive about ending the conflicts yourself.
Third, consider punishment. Punishment is a consequence that decreases a behavior. Positive punishment is adding something disliked (for instance, screaming “fuck you, you stupid bitch”); negative punishment is taking away something desired (for instance, refusing to talk to someone after they have screamed “fuck you, you stupid bitch”).
Punishment is problematic. The best punishments are natural consequences: for instance, if you’re tired of your roommate not doing the dishes when it’s her job, just stop doing the dishes for her. Also good are pseudonatural consequences, ones that seem like you responding rationally to incentives: for instance, if a person insults you, you’re unlikely to want to keep talking to them; if your friend won’t stop complaining, maybe you’re a little less hasty to return her phone calls. Actual punishment, while it’s sometimes the right course, is often ineffective. The person might be less likely to do the thing you don’t want them to do, but they’re also not going to like you. You might come off as presumptuous or controlling. And they might figure out that you can only punish them when you’re around them and avoid you.
Whichever you go with, be careful to avoid a punitive tone: don’t say “because you’re such a TERRIBLE PERSON, I’m going to stop talking to you and I hope you learn your lesson!” Just say: “I am leaving this conversation now. Goodbye.” Be sure that your punishment is specific, that it’s time-limited, and that it’s proportionate: don’t refuse to talk to someone for a week because they were ten minutes late on doing the dishes.
Meeting needs, stopping reinforcement, and punishment all weaken or suppress behavior, but they don’t eliminate it or teach new behavior. To keep an undesired behavior from resurfacing, be sure to pair your getting-the-person-to-stop with reinforcing a desired alternative behavior. For instance, you can reinforce your friend talking about more pleasant things by paying very close attention to her; you can reinforce your girlfriend talking in a civil manner by giving her things she wants that she asks for in a civil way.
Whether you’re trying to increase a behavior or weaken a behavior, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be aware that people are different from each other! Some people thrive on praise; other people feel rewarded when you spend quality time with them; still other people like when you do little favors for them. Something that can be a reinforcer for one person can be a punishment for another person: if someone is extremely introverted, then your attention might be a punishment rather than a reward, and you can reinforce their behavior by leaving them alone. Observe the person’s behavior to see how it changes, and if the reinforcer doesn’t seem to work for them, feel free to switch. Whenever possible, use natural consequences. Be careful about making sure the reinforcer is proportionate: don’t spend fifteen minutes praising somebody for putting trash in the trashcan.
Second, remember that behavior doesn’t always generalize across contexts. You can spend a lot of time making sure that someone is calm and civil when they argue with you, and they still might pick stupid, angry fights on the Internet. If you care about making sure that they stop doing that, you’re going to have to go through the whole behavioral change process again.