DBT Assumptions

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:

  1. People are doing the best they can.
  2. People want to improve.
  3. People need to do better, try harder, and be more motivated to change.
  4. People may have not caused all of their own problems, but they have to solve them anyway.
  5. The lives of suicidal, depressed, anxious and angry people (or teens) are painful as they are currently being lived.
  6. All people must learn new behaviors in different situations in their lives (e.g. home, school, the neighborhood).
  7. There is no absolute truth.
  8. 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.

6 Comments on “DBT Assumptions

    • It was something I had to pursue in the group because the therapists didn’t explain that very well. But, I think it’s important to keep in mind. Otherwise, how could we assume that someone is doing their best or desirous of doing better when clearly there are people who are neither? I think that the environment is key.

  1. Very insightful. To add to the point about everyone doing their best, everyone is just trying to get through life with as little resistance as possible. No one wakes up as says “I’m going to go out of my way and be a bad mother today”. When your mother was raging, she wasn’t doing that to make her life harder. She probably knew she needed to be calmer, but didn’t think she could be any better.
    That’s not to say that makes people unaccountable for their actions, that’s just something to keep in mind.

    • Your comment speaks to the idea that perhaps people don’t know that there are options or other responses available. “I’m angry and feel out of control.” Then rage ensues because all that energy has to go somewhere. That impulsivity can’t plan for how that expended energy will affect others. She may not have been trying to make her life harder, and she might not have believed that she could be any better; but, her actions profoundly affected those who depended upon her to be stable and nurturing. And therein lies the rub. We don’t live in a vacuum which is why when we realize that we lack the skills to make healthy decisions we have to acquire them so that we can break unhealthy patterns of behavior. It is difficult. Life is challenging for all of us. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I didn’t mean to rub you in anyway, and I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said above. Personally I had a very cold, and uncaring mom who wasn’t there for us when we needed her, so I don’t know what it’s like to have my mom “raging”. But what helped me get over my anger towards her was realizing that she wasn’t an evil monster and she wasn’t trying to hurt me. I’m not saying you should forgive your mother, I haven’t forgiven mine, but I don’t hate her anymore.
    I’m sorry if I offended you, it wasn’t the intention.

    • Oh no! I’m not offended in any way! I think my analytical voice sounds too matter-of-fact in the comment section. i do apologize for that. Tone is hard to convey. My mother has Borderline Personality Disorder with narcissistic and sadistic tendencies so I dealt with a profound amount of rage. Unfortunately, my mother did indeed intend to hurt me on many occasions with purpose and intent. And, she derived pleasure from it. That’s where the sadistic tendencies in her DX come from. I don’t, however, view her through a black and white lens which is a temptation to be sure. She isn’t a monster, and you are wise to make that distinction. None of us can be judged through that all or nothing filter because it’s seldom just one thing driving us. I know what’s driving my mother. I have actually arrived at a place of forgiveness where she is concerned. Not reconciliation. That’s not the same as forgiveness. But, I don’t expect her to repay me anymore nor do I hold her to something as I used to. And, I do appreciate what you mean that perhaps she didn’t see another way to behave. I actually believe that she did not. So, you bring good points to the forum.

      But, know that I wasn’t offended. I can be very rational at times when discussing these things because, at times, I have to be. I want to talk about these issues because they matter. And the discussion matters. I’m pretty hard to offend at this point in my life. So, feel free to comment. 😉

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