Why DBT skills are better than work on self esteem for your interpersonal relationships.

Have you ever found yourself drifting into unwanted patterns in friendships and romantic relationships because you just ‘go with the flow’?

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Found yourself at breaking point, having big reactions to things that weren’t a big deal in the past?

Restoring to threats and ultimatums to get your way? 

Or just disappearing and accepting that you just have to make yourself smaller and smaller and have fewer wants and needs? 

Perhaps, like so many of us, you’ve alternated between these things. I know I have. Sometimes I’ve given up on important personal priorities. In the past I’ve tried to change core aspects of myself to make a relationship work. I’ve let things go (or at least thought I had) until I just can’t stand it anymore. And then my reactions have been WAY bigger and more intense. I have a history of abandoning myself and using coping patterns that were helpful in the distant past, but long outlived their usefulness, becoming harmful to me and my relationships. 

Of course, there is a time and a place for going with the flow. It is important to know how to compromise, to be easily pleased, and to accommodate other people’s needs and wants. But it is also important to hold on to our own values, needs and wants. One of the things I most appreciate about the dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) interpersonal effectiveness module is that it taught me some of the skills to conceptualise how to think about my priorities in interpersonal situations and even more skills to help me to navigate encounters. 

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Before encountering DBT, I’d thought successfully navigating interpersonal interactions was all about self-esteem and self-worth. That if someone had enough, then they would be able to get through interpersonal situations while holding their values and compromising as needed. It turns out that is utter rubbish. Having the belief that your needs and wants are just as important as other people’s is lovely. I would want everyone to have that belief. But the belief alone is not enough. The belief alone doesn’t mean someone will be able to ask for something they want or need, or be able to handle pushback. It doesn’t mean someone will recognise when the short-term desire is less important than maintaining or strengthening their relationship. It doesn’t mean someone will know how to express uncomfortable truths. 

Thats where DBT skills come in. They literally break down the process for how to work out what you want from an interaction and then give you a bunch more skills for actually going after it! Of course, this sounds pretty simple and obvious, but actually it is really hard in practice for most people (at least at first). Especially if you’re someone that has just gone with the flow in the past. It means really getting in touch with what you REALLY want in the short term and the long term. DBT asks:

What is your objective? (what do you want)

How do you want the other person to feel about you based on how you handled this interaction,  whether or not you reached your objective?

How do you want to feel about yourself based on how you handled this interaction, whether or not you reached your objective?

Perhaps those questions sound really simple to you, but they were incredibly clarifying for me. They allowed me to dig into what I really wanted, and the different aspects of my desires. Just this practice, done regularly, can transform your interactions with others. Like other parts of DBT, it was a skill that I learned, that became a practice and then simply part of the way I think about important conversations or conflicts. It has literally changed the way I approach big conversations. 

The next step, once you’re clear about each of the answers, is to work out what is the most important priority. This can be super easy, or incredibly hard. Let’s be honest –– most of the time we want all of them. Prioritising is key to working out what to do next and how to use the rest of the skills in the interpersonal effectiveness module of DBT. 

These lessons were so completely the opposite of what I expected. I guess I imagined that a lot of the work would be about digging into why I didn’t ask for what I wanted or negotiate in ways that would have been helpful in my relationships. It wasn’t like that at all! It was just a set of really practical skills and rooted in my own life that I had regular opportunities to practice. And doing those practices made it much easier to ask for what I wanted in ways that were effective in my relationships, which helped me to feel better about the asking part. Which turned into a virtuous circle that made me more comfortable asking for things in the long run because I had the skills to do it and, crucially, I’d had some successful practice at it.

I can’t tell you how much these practices have helped my friendships, familial and romantic relationships. I’ve been more able to ask for what I want and need while also being more flexible and accommodating when that was important to me. I’ve been more able to hold my boundaries and to ask for things before they become an emergency & to really get in touch with my own priorities. That’s priceless! 

I think nearly everyone could benefit from this work, but it is especially important for those of us that have a tendency to always try to put others first, to people please, to default to ‘yes’, and/or to find it excruciating to ask for what we want. If thats you I’d really encourage you to come to one of our courses to build these skills too.

Here at LoveUncommon we teach the DBT interpersonal effectiveness module twice a year, you can find out more about that here. We also include some parts of it in our work on self consent, because we think some of these skills are a cruicual part of that work. We hope you join us sometime soon!

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