DBT’s Interpersonal Effectiveness: Building Mastery and Self-Respect

“Do you think it’s important to nurture genuine respect for oneself?” I would be shocked/stunned/mind-boggled if the majority of people to whom I asked this question replied with some variation of, “no, thanks, it’s been quite pleasant disrespecting myself and my beliefs and sincerely thinking that I am incompetent.” In fact, while it might be almost impossible to believe, most of the people who walk into my office voice some type of desire to feel good about who they are and at peace about the decisions they’ve made with regard to their interactions with others.

So, just how important is self-respect? Let’s look at a recent situation in my personal life that pertinently and efficiently reminded me of the vast importance of self-respect. Recently, I found myself in a situation with a friend that, over a two-week period, proved to be particularly distressing. Two weeks prior to this realization, I identified my need to express my feelings about his actions, or in this case, lack of action. However, I wanted the discussion to take place in person, not via some sort of electronic medium, and I wanted to find the appropriate time, a combination of desires that proved to be especially difficult to attain as day after day blew by.

Upon his most recent departure from an in-person interaction between us, during which I, again, could not seem to recognize this seemingly elusive perfect time, I found myself bombarded by uncomfortable thoughts/feelings. The most common thought: “You failed. Once again, he left and you did not say anything,” followed closely by the feeling of shame. Then, I watched, mindfully, as the thoughts/feelings cycled through my mind. Shame triggered the thought, “you’re weak, you’ll never find the right time. You’re using this right time notion to avoid talking to him,” followed closely by more shame, who brought with it its two acquaintances, guilt and sadness (nice to see you, again!).

And that’s when it hit me. Why wasn’t I eagerly having this seemingly necessary conversation? Well, that was a fairly easy one for me…fear. Fear that he wouldn’t like me. Fear it would ruin our relationship. Fear that he’d leave. And I didn’t want to discount, invalidate, or avoid this fear, as the fear of losing or damaging significant relationships in one’s life can be daunting, vastly uncomfortable, and even paralyzing. However, what was the cost? By avoiding the first situation of having a discussion due to potential negative consequences, I was causing other, very real, negative consequences to occur in the place of ones that had not even occurred yet, and might not even occur. Based on consequences that had a 50% chance of materializing (It might ruin our relationship, it might not. He might leave, he might not.), I was creating a second situation with a 100% chance of damaging my self-respect…and I still didn’t even know what might or might not happen in the first situation!

The founder of DBT, Marsha Linehan, describes mastery as doing something that increases one’s feelings of competence, and sometimes, if you fail, doing it over and over and over again until you succeed. With regard to self-respect, Linehan notes that one builds self-respect when he/she acts in ways that support his/her personal beliefs, morals, and opinions. Mastery builds competence. Competence builds self-respect. Take the example of a newborn learning to walk. When little Joey takes his first steps and falls, what would happen if he never got back up? Would he ever learn how to walk if he never tried again? How would he feel about his walking abilities? Furthermore, would he be more or less likely to get up and try again if he were to succumb to his inundating thoughts of, “I’m a failure. I’ll never learn how to walk. All the other babies will learn how to walk and I’ll be stuck here, crawling on the floor, forever (insert sad-face emoticon here).” I’m concerned about Little Joey’s self-respect already.

It’s not easy to do things we perceive as potentially threatening, and it’s also not easy to deal with the inevitable thoughts/feelings that show-up when we don’t take action when we want to (or act when we don’t want to). And while the blow to our self-respect can be equally devastating, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn how to skillfully manage difficult situations.  So, the next time you find yourself in a particularly tough situation with another person, just remember this is probably not the last complicated situation/interaction you’ll be faced with in your lifetime… AND every difficult situation you encounter is another opportunity to build your mastery at effectively handling tough situations and to enhance and deepen your self-respect! Be kind to yourself, validate your fears, and grow.

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