Playing Scrabble with Life

Happy September, everyone! I am ending a three-week break from school. The girls and I headed West to San Francisco for 12 days of doing whatever we wanted which pretty much meant drinking too much boba, hitting up stores that are not in the Midwest like Muji and Uniqlo, and eating bibimbap whenever possible.  It was glorious.

Alas, all escapes involve the inevitable return, but, if it’s a successful vacation, then I suppose one feels recharged and ready to return to reality  The girls felt ready to come back.  There is a lot to do in our home city.  School is starting, and I have a house to empty out.  We have to downsize in a big way in preparation for moving next summer.  It’s daunting not to mention I have to return to my grad school program, and, as much as I’d love to forget it, the OCR investigation is still on-going for my college’s Title IX violation.  And, the guy who harassed me is returning to the program.  I shouldn’t bump into him; nonetheless, he’ll be there.  I’m ready to depart.  I’m weary of being in that school, but I’ll do what I must for an additional two trimesters.  I think the modern term for this is “adulting”.

With my attitude adjusted, I went to a lovely wedding two nights ago.  A civil ceremony and dinner hosted by the bride and groom and their family.  It was utterly delightful.  I seldom meet such charming and warm people.  Being present for their wedding was a privilege and pleasure.  A metaphorical fly, however, was in the soup.  One of the guests was a student in my program, and I was a bit on edge upon seeing him there.  After the sexual harassment at my college started in February 2017, I kept my personality and appearance guarded.  I stopped wearing make-up.  I wore hats and hoodies, jeans, and Converse.  I tried to be as invisible as possible thinking that my harasser would find me less attractive or even completely unappealing.  It didn’t work.  The lesson in that is that when you’re being harassed, the problem isn’t with you.  The problem lies with the perpetrator regardless of how often you’re blamed.  It’s never about how you look or what you’re wearing.

Admittedly, I feel that I have a bigger personality, and I really tried to keep myself “small” at school.  I don’t know if any of you will relate to this, but have you ever been criticized or judged for being successful or good at something? This is, of course, due to the insecurities of those judging you, but it makes little difference in the moment.  When people blame you for something, I think that’s it’s normal to feel at fault somehow.  When I was an adolescent, my mother would often accuse me of thinking that I was superior to others because I found intellectual pursuits appealing; more than that, I excelled in the academy largely because I worked really hard and had little to no social life.  I hid from the world in school.  It wasn’t at all balanced, and it led to serious burn-out.  I don’t recommend it.

My mother did not go to college, and I suspect that she felt somehow lacking and out of place for this.  I never said so, and I have never believed this.  She, however, projected her beliefs onto me and then harshly attacked me as if I held that view.  It became almost memetic in our exchanges.  If I did well in school or university, then I by default thought I was superior to everyone in the entire world.  To bypass these judgments, I had to pretend that I was not doing well in school.  I could not discuss scholarships or opportunities I was receiving.  I couldn’t tell my family when my university endorsed me for the Rhodes Scholarship or the Fulbright Fellowship, and my mother refused to acknowledge that I had graduated from university with highest honors.  To her, I just thought I was better than everyone which is completely untrue.

My father, on the other hand, would just slap me across the face.  For real.  If I said anything that bothered him in the slightest, he would slap me! Me and my big personality often said things that bothered him.  You can imagine how often I was slapped.

Bear with me, this relates to the wedding…

So, I decided to go to the wedding as myself.  I dressed up, wore lipstick and fancy shoes, and did my hair.  To hell with it all, I thought.  It’s a wedding! Back to that fly in the soup–the student from my school, Brandon.  Brandon is young.  He’s very boyish in his demeanor and affect, and it’s, therefore, surprising that he’s almost ready to graduate.  He has appeared friendly enough in past interactions, but, at times, he is haughty.  A quality I chalked up to his age and a lack of life experiences.  Humility often comes through having negative life experiences and then having the time to develop insight around them.  That requires time which is often reflected in one’s age but certainly not always (Lord, I sound old right now).

On the night in question, I sat with a lovely group of seasoned Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners and listened to them tell “war stories”.  I’m a student! I have nothing to contribute to this conversation in terms of experience, but I asked questions.  They were happy to include me.  Brandon, who chose to sit across from me at the dinner and text, had already asked me one question, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…mom?” I mention this because were I a male student would he have asked, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…dad?” Likely not.  There are three stay-at-home dads in my program, and I’ve never heard anyone speak to these outstanding men in a pedantic or condescending tone.  To the women with children, however, who have stayed at home to care for their children, Brandon’s somewhat condescending question has been the norm.  The context for our future exchange had been established.

As the conversation developed, the practitioners and I began discussing travel and past education, and I could enter into this discussion. I have traveled and lived abroad.  The discussion was wonderful, and the rabbit trails were quite fascinating.  Brandon looked to be disengaged or pouting.  We all discussed foreign languages and past teachers.  Suddenly, the subject of harvesting berries emerged of which the time was nigh.  One of the doctors had a crop that was due for harvest, and the medicinal qualities of the berry were discussed at length.  Brandon perked up eager to join in as he could finally discuss something “scientific”.  When I looked at him and commented, “Oh yes, you can look at the studies online about this,” he turned his head, looked me in the eyes and said meanly cutting me off, “I want to listen to the conversation right now.”  He then turned his shoulder to me, leaned in towards everyone, and ebulliently asked questions, laughing in an overly exaggerated manner.

It was a verbal slap in the face, and it stung.  Oddly, no one present seemed to hear what he had said which made sense because it was solely meant for me.  He did not want me participating in the conversation.  I sipped my water and gathered my wits.  I contained myself.  I was not going to say anything to him because this was not my social affair.  I wasn’t going to ruin a beautiful evening because of an apparently insecure, immature boy’s misbehavior.  I went home that night feeling very bothered.  I could see his face in my mind’s eye and hear his voice, and I determined that his inappropriate behavior bothered me so profoundly because he did what both my parents had done to me for years.  He felt left out socially for whatever reason so he chose to socially wound me in order to rejuvenate his injured ego.  He already displayed sexism and mild misogyny in his prior question.  Attempting to silence me in our evening’s discussion of medicine was apparently the only way he could feel legitimate again.

That’s so wrong and, unfortunately, so common in terms of how humans interact.  It exemplifies poor interpersonal skills, poor ego development, poor impulse control, personal and professional envy, insecurity, mild narcissism, and emotional arrested development.  It explains a lot in terms of why people are struggling to make meaningful interpersonal connections and overcome loneliness which is rampant today.  As my boyfriend said after I told him what happened, he’s fortunate he behaved like that towards me.  I’m kind.  What if he had done that to someone with a harsher nature? It would have ended much differently.  What if someone invited him to settle his complaint outside?

So, what’s the point here? I guess my point is that you never know who you will be seated next to on an airplane or at a dinner party.  Life will deal you some strange hands on any given day, and we have to find a way to play the hand we’ve been dealt.  I like to think of it like Scrabble.  Sometimes you get the best combination of letters and impress the heck out of everyone with your chosen word and earn a triple word score.  Other times you get three x’s, and the rest are q’s and z’s.  What…the…hell.  The only way to do anything with that is to build a word off of what’s already been laid down on the board.

We have to dedicate time in our lives to laying some good letters down–building some really complex words–so that when we get a shitty draw of letters we can still play something worthwhile.  What does that look like? Don’t be like Brandon.  Address your insecurities.  Address your envy.  Dig deep and address your past wounds.  Look at the injuries that your parents and family members inflicted upon you.  Do authentic recovery work from past relationships.  Seek out the resources around you that can help you heal from them.  Address your addictions whatever they may be.  We will spend our lives doing this, of course, because all of this is process-oriented work.  It is not destination-based work.  There is no point of arrival in terms of an ending.  If you are breathing, then you are processing something.  You are always drawing tiles to play.  The point of engaging in a process is that you start to draw better tiles.  What Brandon did was attempt to steal tiles from me in order to shut me out of the “game” so to speak.  That’s what socially injuring someone does–it steals social capital from them so that they can’t participate in a fair and often deserved way.  This includes gossip, slander, humiliation, shame, and even discussing true things about them that are bad.  As we engage with intention in daily life and process, what we lay down on The Board gets better because our tiles improve, and, when we do draw some bad ones, we can still play what we draw because we have some quality words on The Board already.  We’ve been building a solid foundation in both how we live our lives and within our character and personalities.

It’s not that hard to do actually when you start small.  Just pick one area where you know you’ve been drawing bad tiles.  Where you feel you can’t win no matter what you do.  Dedicate some time in that singular area.  Whatever it is.  Start with 5 minutes a day.  Just 5 minutes.  See where it takes you.  That might sound naive of me, but it’s not.  Everything has a beginning, and every beginning starts small.  So, start small and stay small until you feel you can make it bigger.  Just be consistent.  That is the key.  Five minutes.  Every day.  That’s it.

With that, I wish you all a wonderful September.  If you have kids going back to school or if you are going back to school, best of luck!

Shalom and keep going…





DBT 101

I’ve stated that my daughter and I started a 25-week Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills group.  There are five other teens in the group with their parents so it’s not a big group.  Most of the kids seem to struggle with “target” behaviors on a regular basis.  Target behaviors are cutting and high-risk behaviors.  My daughter has cut twice, and she doesn’t engage in high-risk behaviors.  I requested DBT because she has problems emotionally regulating.  I wanted to give her the skills now before it was a bigger problem–before she needed to engage in high-risk behaviors to regulate or organize her emotional experiences.

So, the major premises behind DBT are:

  • DBT is an effective treatment for people who have difficulty controlling their emotions and behaviors.
  • DBT aims to reduce problem behavior and increase skillful behavior.
  • DBT helps people learn to better understand and value themselves and others.
  • DBT helps people create a live worth living.

Dialectical means:

  • Two opposite ideas can be true at the same time.
  • There is always more than one way to see a situation, and more than one opinion, idea, or dream.
  • All people have something unique and different to offer.
  • Considers a life worth living to have both positive and negative aspects including happiness, sadness, anger, and peace, and all these aspects are necessary and valuable.

Problems (Behaviors to Decrease)                        Skills (Behaviors to Increase)

  • Confusion About Yourself  (Do not know what you          1. Mindfulness                              feel or why you get upset)
  • Impulsivity (Acting without thinking it through)              2. Distress Tolerance
  • Emotional Instability (fast, intense mood changes,         3.  Emotional Regulation          or steady, negative emotional state)
  • Interpersonal Problems (pattern of difficulty                   4. Interpersonal Effectiveness  keeping relationships steady, and getting                                                                          what you want)
  • Family Dilemmas (Extreme thinking, feeling,                  5. Walking The Middle Path acting, e.g. all or nothing “black/white” thinking)

The bio-social theory behind DBT states that there can be a biological vulnerability to emotions which can cause people to be sensitive, reactive, and slow to return to baseline.  In addition to this, some people have an inability to regulate their emotions effectively.  This is the biological part of the bio-social theory.  The social part of the theory states that when we are in an invalidating environment (IE) that communicates to us that what we are feeling, thinking, and doing are inaccurate, inappropriate or wrong, the result is that rejection and punishment are communicated through the IE causing us to feel ‘less than’ which often leads us to invalidate ourselves with thoughts like “I’m so stupid!” or “I don’t understand why I’m getting so upset,” or “There must be something wrong with me.”  Sometimes there is a poor fit between the individual and the environment.  Over time this leads to multiple problems like confusions about the self, impulsivity, emotional instability, and interpersonal problems.

The DBT approach then is to teach validation and self-validation skills so that the IE can be changed or so that the individual can learn to self-validate regardless of environment as well as learn resiliency so that skills are increased in the areas of impulsivity, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.

This is the bird’s-eye view of DBT.  Frankly, no matter who you are, you can benefit from it because we all engage in invalidating behavior, and we all have experienced an invalidating environment.  Learning to self-validate is an excellent skill, and learning what true validation means is key to maturing and learning kind, effective communication.  Emotional regulation is the other key piece of DBT that I really like.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t struggle from time to time.  Lastly, interpersonal effectiveness is something we will all need until the day we die.  Ideally, we will want to grow in our interpersonal effectiveness over time rather than stall out and stagnate, but that’s what I see many people do.  As we get older we stop challenging ourselves and feel entitled to our way of doing things rather than find humility and desire wisdom.

**information cited above has been adapted from Linehan’s skills training manual.


Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Multi-Family Skills Training Group Manual, Miller, Rathus, and Landman (1999)

Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder, Linehan, Marsha (1993)





The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook

As the title of this post might imply, I am now in possession of a workbook.  I subscribe to Psychology Today, and September’s issue did a spread on Borderline Personality Disorder called “The Kings and Queens of Chaos”.  The article on BPD was okay.  It’s hard to go beyond the surface of any personality disorder because even within the disorder there is a spectrum of functionality.  For instance, there isn’t just one type of narcissist.  On the narcissistic personality spectrum, one might find the Phallic Narcissist who does behave differently than the classic narcissist who behaves differently than the narcissist with borderline tendencies or the narcissist with sadistic tendencies.  The same applies to those diagnosed with BPD.  The high-functioning BPD can be a highly successful person in their job but experience great difficulty in interpersonal relationships.  This is where the article in PT misrepresents the disorder.  Most BPDs I’ve known have been very driven women with narcissistic tendencies.  They have a certain set of skills, find a niche, and experience success in their chosen career.  They can be volatile at work often described as perfectionistic, the Office Bitch, or scary, but they get the job done.  Why? Because their identity is tied to their ability to do well in the one place where they can and do feel successful–the workplace.  PT implied that BPs have a hard time holding down jobs because of their lability, and I was actually irked.  It’s an entire misrepresentation of a diagnosis.  This misinformation will also give people a sense of false security like one guy I know.

He is successful in his job.  He has numerous degrees one of which is a PhD in psychology although he is not a practicing clinical psychologist.  He used to email me about his wife, and if she didn’t fit the bill for for having BPD, then Joan Crawford wasn’t Mommy Dearest.  Some of her behavior was off the charts, and I was astounded that he wasn’t putting the pieces together.  He told me that he discussed his wife with a friend, who was a practicing clinical psychologist.  He indicated that his wife did indeed sound like a borderline.  My friend’s response? But, she’s so good at her job! Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy and pioneer in the field of treatment for BPD, was herself diagnosed with BPD.  Clearly, one can be successful in their career, make contributions to society, and get better with such a diagnosis.  This isn’t really why I wanted to write this post.

Within PT’s article on BPD was another article on the most successful form of treatment for it–Dialectical Behavior Therapy commonly known as DBT.  While DBT is commonly known to some, it seems to be a bit rarer in the field at large.  I haven’t come across that many practitioners.  I am hopeful that this is going to change because, as the article stated, DBT just might be what everyone needs.  DBT is not talk therapy.  DBT is a kind a therapeutic approach that equips people for life because, let’s face it, pathologies are on the rise.  People are more depressed and anxious now than they ever have been.  Affairs are on the rise, narcissism and loneliness are increasing as are addictions.  The human body is simply not fit for the 21st century.  Post-modernity is taking a toll, and most of us are overdrawn.  This is where DBT steps in.

So, what is it exactly? Basically, DBT teaches four skills:

  1. Distress tolerance
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Emotional regulation
  4. Interpersonal effectiveness

Who doesn’t need this? There isn’t one person I know who doesn’t need help with distress tolerance.  What does that mean exactly? Put very simply, you feel distressed, how will you handle it? Our culture today is saturated with escapism.  If i’m upset by something in my circumstances, there are exits everywhere.  I do not have to stick around and work on my own resiliency.  I can get a dopamine hit through any number of venues both virtual and real.  What’s more, it’s encouraged! “You need a break!” We are told this over and over again.  Distress tolerance, therefore, teaches resiliency which is exactly what is needed.  On the flip side, if you come from an abusive background, your distress tolerance is often distorted.  You might not know what not to tolerate because you were forced to tolerate too much.  If you watched your drunk father beat up your mother every Saturday night for years, then you might not know that an emotionally abusive spouse is not to be tolerated.

Mindfulness is something that I love while at the same time something that challenges me.  I am the Queen of Perseveration.  “Hello, my name is MJ.  I perseverate.”  I don’t do this all the time, but when I get going I won’t stop until I’ve Thelma and Louised myself over a mental cliff.  It usually starts with a feeling.  A bad one.  That bad feeling will bring forth a memory from times past when I felt the same way.  An entire gestalt memory recall event will occur, and my mind will bring forth every single time I ever felt this way.  A memory train will form, the events forming cars, the cars linking together, the emotional pain becoming the steam locomotive, my perseveration tying me to the tracks, and the whistle blows! Full steam ahead! I am run over again and again by every painful memory until I’m weeping and shrouded in negativity.  There are train tracks in my mind from these events ready and waiting for the next time the Memory Train pulls into town.  Mindfulness training, however, dismantles that train.  It teaches us not to focus on past events or look anxiously to the future.  It teaches you to let go of negative thinking and judgments as well.

Emotional regulation is a vastly important skill, and emotional regulation is something everyone struggles with at one time or another.  It’s really about becoming aware of what you are feeling, observing your emotions while not becoming overwhelmed by them.  It’s also about not reacting in destructive ways due to a lack of emotional modulation.

Lastly, interpersonal effectiveness “gives you new tools to express your beliefs and needs, set limits, and negotiate solutions to problems–all while protecting your relationships and treating others with respect.” (p 2)  How’s that for a goal? Who doesn’t need that skill?

On some level, I feel like I have these skills, but I see that I could grow immensely in all of them.  This is why I bought the workbook.  It costs $15.  You can do it alone.  You could do it with a friend.  You could do it with a therapist.  But, I think the point is that it’s worth doing even if your only goal is to become a better person.  By the way, there’s one for anxiety, too! Just thought I’d tease you a bit.



Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anxiety: Breaking Free from Worry, Panic, PTSD and Other Anxiety Symptoms

Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bulimia: Using DBT to Regain Control and Break Control Over Your Life

Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder: Using DBT to Regain Control of Your Emotions and Your Life