There is one core dialectic nestled in the DBT assumptions:
People are doing the best they can, and people need to do better, try harder, and be more motivated to change.
Here is the entire list of DBT assumptions:
- People are doing the best they can.
- People want to improve.
- People need to do better, try harder, and be more motivated to change.
- People may have not caused all of their own problems, but they have to solve them anyway.
- The lives of suicidal, depressed, anxious and angry people (or teens) are painful as they are currently being lived.
- All people must learn new behaviors in different situations in their lives (e.g. home, school, the neighborhood).
- There is no absolute truth.
- People cannot fail DBT.
If you come from an emotionally intense family of origin or have experienced trauma, then some of these assumptions might trip you up. I was certainly bothered. I was bothered by the first assumption and the seventh assumption the most.
Are people really doing the best they can? When the therapists leading the group read these aloud to us I wanted to raise my hand and ask, “Was my mother doing the best she could when she was raging? Should that be my takeaway?”
And, there is no absolute truth? Really? So, it isn’t absolute that I can say ‘no’ if I don’t want to have sex on a date? That’s just a suggestion? Or, every human being isn’t valuable and deserving of, at a minimum, a safe environment?
These were the thoughts that immediately came to mind when I heard these assumptions. Clearly, I was triggered and very defensive. My own defensive state caused me to, ironically, feel even more defensive. I was upset with myself for feeling triggered. So, what’s the key here to understanding these DBT assumptions?
A validating environment. For these assumptions to work there must be a validating environment in which they are made. In a validating environment, it probably is safe to believe that people are doing the best they can while at the same time required to do better (there’s that dialectic. Two opposing ideas that are true at the same time). It is safe to believe that there is no absolute truth because we’re talking about point of view and perception, not philosophical truths like the value of people or fundamental boundaries like a person’s right to say no to a sexual encounter. My perception, for example, is mine, and I can acknowledge that it may not be yours. In other words, my perception is not absolute nor is my point of view. I can make room for another perception and point of view in my worldview. In a validating environment boundaries are respected, not questioned and violated. Perceptions and points of view are also respected.
So, the validating environment is our starting point when we consider assumptions. That is our given, and this makes sense. Feeling safe, secure, and validated is a necessity if we are to pursue a paradigm shift, learn new skills, better our behaviors, and put everything into practice. We can’t take risks if we don’t feel safe.
Next up? Mindfulness.
Material adapted from Marsha M. Linehan’s Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder.