Holiday season is my favorite time of year. I love the festivities, I love being around my family, and I love the overall warmth and joy this time of year brings. What I love most about the holiday season, though, is that it is a time for me to pause and reflect. Every year around this time, I especially like to think about what I am grateful for about the past year. As I reflect on 2021, I am most grateful for the opportunity to enroll in a DBT therapy group this semester.
DBT stands for dialectical behavioral therapy and is a form of cognitive behavior therapy. I knew I wanted to make a change in my life and join therapy when I caught myself repeating some patterns that began to negatively impact multiple areas of my life. A few months ago, I began to realize that over the years, I have formed a tendency to think in ‘either-or’s.’ This type of thinking has hindered my own personal growth and is affecting my interpersonal relationships. For instance, I think in terms of either “success” or “failure,” so if I plan to get five things done on any given day and I’m only able to complete three, I see ‘failure’ and can’t process any nuanced ‘in-between’ of the situation. Similarly, in relationships with others, I have trouble breaking free from conceptions of “right” and “wrong” such that if there is a disagreement, I strongly feel I am right and I become resistant to seeing viewpoints that don’t align with my own. In both of these situations, I am causing myself, and others, discomfort and distress. When I recognized this pattern earlier this year, I knew that something had to change. I joined therapy to better understand myself, to learn how to cultivate a healthier mindset, and to make some positive changes in my actions.
I am very appreciative of DBT because it addresses the root of my polarized thinking. My group leader recently shared that in all of his years working in therapy and counseling, he has never perceived anything that someone has shared with him as “wrong,” because there is always some kernel of truth in it. The more I think about this statement, the more powerful it becomes. This is the essence of dialectical thinking: to understand that two things can be true, and that all points of view have both true and false within them. I can be doing my best at something and I can feel a desire (or even a need) to try harder in the future. I can be right in my own viewpoint and the other person can be right on their end, too. In short, DBT has taught me the power of ‘and,’ which has allowed me to expand my thinking and to ultimately behave in a more balanced fashion.
In one of our first therapy sessions, we learned about the concept of Wise Mind. Our minds have three states: Reasonable Mind, Emotion Mind, and Wise Mind. Reasonable Mind is cool, rational, and task-focused. When in Reasonable Mind, we are guided by facts and logic, with values and feelings taking the back-burner. When in Reasonable Mind, we place an overemphasis on observable knowledge. On the other hand, when in Emotion Mind, we are guided by moods and urges; we are unable to think pragmatically and are instead driven by our subjective perceptions and emotional state. As you might imagine, neither Reasonable nor Emotion Mind is a balanced state of being and they exist on opposite ends of a spectrum. The Wise Mind, then, is the middle path, bringing together both the value of reason and emotion to offer clarity in our thinking and decision-making.
Wise Mind was my first exercise in practicing the power of ‘and.’ Our homework after the first week was to notice our state of mind in a situation and try to move our mind to a more centered state in that moment. By tapping into Wise Mind, I realized how often I become trapped in deep emotion where I get so wrapped up in my subjective state. As a result, I become reactive and unable to accept facts or logic. One way to practice Wise Mind, before reacting in a situation, is to ‘simply’ pause and ask ourselves whether this thought, action, or plan is coming from Wise Mind (I put ‘simply’ in quotes, of course, because this is much easier said than done). The idea here is that while we might tend to find ourselves impulsively at either extreme of the reasonable or emotion mind, we all have the capacity to tap into Wise Mind and find balance in any given situation. That week, whenever I felt my emotions rising, I asked myself if my impulsive reaction was coming from Wise Mind. More often than not, I found that it was not. For me, Wise Mind was actually the gut feeling I could search for, oftentimes knowing that my emotional reaction was not going to be appropriate. Making myself pause and listen to this gut feeling was sometimes all I needed to avoid responding in a disproportionate emotional manner.
Of course, the exercise isn’t always smooth and satisfying. Therapy helps to create change and it is by no means a magic wand or a quick miracle fix; it has been a rewarding process and it is very hard work to analyze, understand, and change some of my problematic tendencies (and frankly, sometimes, I just don’t want to put in all that effort). As I mentioned, when I feel deeply emotional, I have trouble perceiving facts in the situation detached from my feelings. In these times, I have the most trouble accessing Wise Mind because I can’t see the value in pragmatic thinking. In these moments, I’m so sure that my emotions are ‘right’ and anything to the contrary is ‘wrong.’ A couple weeks into therapy, we learned about Nonjudgmentalness, a skill that helped me unpack this roadblock.
In general, we often think and speak in terms of judgments, taking reality and adding some sort of assumption or evaluation to it. For instance, when we label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or view things from a stance of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t,’ we are taking a judgmental stance. We make judgments all the time in our daily lives and they are not inherently bad. For instance, a thought like “that painting is beautiful” is a judgment. It is grounded in facts, such as “the colors used are vibrant” and “the details bring the work to life,” but the judgment that the painting is beautiful has a subjective evaluation attached to it. In many situations, judgments can intensify our emotions while simultaneously disconnecting us from reality. For example, “she shouldn’t be such a terrible roommate” is a judgment. The thought may be based in fact, such as “she does not clean up after herself” and “her laundry is all over the floor,” but the reality is supplanted with an evaluation based on one’s values, wishes, and emotional reactions, creating a judgment.
Again, judgments are not inherently bad, but they also don’t change reality and are hence an ineffective way to fix our problems. Nonjudgmentalness asks us to separate the facts from our judgments. To practice Nonjudgmentalness in the above [hypothetical] example, I could focus on the facts, such as my roommate not cleaning up after herself and leaving her laundry all over the floor. I could describe the consequences of these facts, such as “I have to spend extra time cleaning the kitchen” and “I am unable to walk in the room without stepping on her dirty clothes.” I could describe my feelings, such as “I feel angry and frustrated that she hasn’t made changes despite having discussed this issue four times.” I could even describe my preferences, what I wish would happen: “I wish she would respect me and our shared space.”
Thinking of the situation in terms of describing the facts helps someone, like me, who has trouble separating their emotions from reality. In this situation, I could react from my emotionally-charged judgment and tell my roommate that she shouldn’t be so terrible. You can imagine how that conversation might not yield the desired outcome. Instead, I could describe to her the facts, consequences, my feelings, and my preferences as outlined above: “I feel frustrated that despite our multiple conversations, you have not changed some habits that we have discussed. I wish there was more mutual respect for each other and our shared home.” Of course there are no guarantees in any situation, but I’d feel much more steady myself going in with the latter approach, and I’d imagine my [fictional] roommate would be more receptive to me if I spoke nonjudgmentally. The Nonjudgmentalness practice has been eye-opening for me because learning to acknowledge my judgments and focus on the underlying reality has helped me to move away from emotionally loaded interpretations so that I can speak in a more effective way.
Because of my deep gratitude for my time in the DBT group, I have a deeper appreciation for therapy in general. You don’t have to have a mental illness or be in a state of extreme distress to seek mental health support. I strongly believe that everyone deserves therapy even if as a tool to better understand themselves and grow as a person. I also understand that, unfortunately, accessing mental health support is challenging for many people for many reasons. Some of us might especially feel the stigma of attending therapy from our families or communities. For others, therapy might not be financially feasible.
For those of us in school or university, our institutions often offer confidential counseling services free of charge. Groups like Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers also provide free and confidential mental health support for law students and lawyers. Although certainly no substitute for professional support, there are also apps such as MindShift and Woebot that can provide self-guided exercises in mindfulness and distress tolerance. Many CBT and DBT worksheets and self-guided packets are available online as well. And when we do find ourselves in moments of extreme distress, we can text HOME to 741741 to be connected with a crisis counselor or contact Statewide Samaritans at 877-870-4673 immediately. For any of these options, there is no shame in realizing that we need support–access to mental health resources and therapy is for everybody.
I am immensely thankful for therapy this year and I wish the same for everyone else, as well. Whether you want to understand yourself better, learn effective coping skills, or improve your relationships, I hope some form of therapy can be a viable option for you. It has entirely changed my perspective to help me continually evolve into the best version of myself. I want that for you, too.
Roma Gujarathi is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact her at email@example.com.