Eadaoin started the first of her 25-week Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Group or rather I should say that we both did. A parent has to attend, too. I was very excited to get that show on the road because I really love DBT. I think that everyone should learn DBT because it’s so applicable to life, relationships, and even jobs. It’s going to help Eadaoin so much, and I’ll only come out of the group more enriched. This is a win/win.
I was not, however, prepared to be stuck in a smallish room with a bunch of strangers. I forgot that aspect of the support group. Group implies ‘people’. I have never liked forced association. You know what I don’t like even more? Forced intimacies. Gee, I wonder where Eadaoin got her social anxiety from? Were I not taking Topamax, I would have left the room. I can be honest. I do not like sitting around pretending to like something when I do not, but this is part of being an adult. If Eadaoin has to do it, then I should do it, too.
The group is led by Eadaoin’s new therapist, another psychologist, and pre-doctoral student. Our first meeting was an introduction to DBT and a few Get To Know You exercises. Since we’ll all be sitting in a room together for 24 weeks to come, I can see the legitimacy of these activities. This is my rational mind speaking. My irrational mind wanted to yell, “Hell, no!” when we were told that we all had to make an acrostic of our name and use it as a name placard for the rest of our time in the group. So, we not only have to make this acrostic–something I did in second grade–but we have to read them out loud to everyone, too? Both Eadaoin and I looked at each other with horror. The man next to me looked equally disturbed. Honestly, isn’t knowing our first names enough? Nope.
The group leaders provided us all with markers, glitter, glue, and told us to decorate our acrostic in any way we wanted. Oh, there it is, I thought. My way out of this. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the first letter , or initial, of my name in line with medieval artists, thus, excluding the first letter of my name from the acrostic. By the time I finished writing out my name and adding a few adjectives that reveal absolutely nothing about me, it was time to end the exercise. Then came the torture. We all had to read our acrostics out loud. Truly, I’d rather go to the gynecologist or get a mammogram. I think Eadaoin felt something similar although her preference would have been for the HPV vaccination.
Finally, it was over. We were asked how we felt about the exercise. Everyone was reluctant to speak. The adults were trying to be cooperative, but the kids in the room made no attempt to hide their disdain. There were a few adults in the room who wanted approval so they were very cooperative. There were some who were introverts so they didn’t speak much like me. Then, there was me. I finally spoke up because I wanted to tell the truth in hopes that it might validate some of the other people, kids as well. I said, “I am a very private person. I didn’t like this exercise because I don’t know anyone in this group, and this felt a little too much like a forced intimacy. Too much, too soon. So, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to say something without saying anything at all.” The group leaders looked a bit shocked, but there were some group participants who nodded their heads and the man next to me said, “Yeah, I agree. I really relate to that.”
One of the group leaders said, “Uh, well, ahem, that was a very honest thing to say. Thank you for sharing that.” I was internally laughing because I know that they weren’t expecting that. They were expecting us to talk about self-judgments. That’s how they were leading us with their encouragements: “Now, this is the perfect time to begin practicing mindfulness. Just let any self-judgments pass through your mind. If you can’t think of anything right away, then that’s okay. If you don’t like how what you’ve done has turned out, then that’s okay, too.”
But, is it okay that I did not want to do the exercise? Are my boundaries acceptable? I am certainly willing to share after I’ve gotten to know people a little bit, but trust is earned. Just because it’s a skills group doesn’t mean that we have to jump in with both feet on the first day.
Now, I know that I probably sound a bit childish. I’m complaining about being forced to do an acrostic in a skills group. It’s not really a big deal, but, in the moment, it was very unpleasant. I think Eadaoin and I found it so unpleasant because we weren’t given a choice, and introverts like to have options regarding what they share and with whom particularly socially anxious introverts. I think a better way to get people to reveal something about themselves is to get them to talk about things that they like so that they do not have to talk about themselves. In this way, they inadvertently reveal something about themselves by sharing their likes or dislikes. Plus, you get to know the people in a group, too, in a much more interesting way. So, how about this?
Favorite beverage: coffee, coffee, and MOAR coffee
Favorite movie: Oh, that’s tough. “The Princess Bride” since high school, “Goodfellas” for a good gangster movie, “White Christmas” during the holidays, “Gigi”, “The Sound of Music”, “Funny Face” when I’m in certain mood, “Aliens” for sci-fi, and “When Harry Met Sally” for great dialogue, “Charade”, “To Catch a Thief” and “Rear Window” for classic thriller,…and too many more to name.
Favorite food: the hangar steak at Salut with pommes frites dipped in Béarnaise sauce or sushi
Favorite place to visit: Devon, England or Paris or the North Shore on Lake Superior
Favorite book: This is too hard! Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy…maybe, or Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I could read that book over and over again. But, for sheer brilliance in writing, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.
Favorite restaurant: The New Scenic Café on the North Shore
See? I could do that with much more ease than an acrostic of my name and so could Eadaoin.
To be honest, forcing intimacy is the one thing that I do not like about therapeutic groups. If it’s a support group, then, yes, at some point one is going to have to open up, but that’s the point of a support group. Going in, one knows that, but I really do not want to sit in a group of strangers and talk about very personal things. I’m there to learn DBT. Eadaoin is there to learn DBT. Given some time, people will blossom, find their own level of comfort, and share on their own without being forced to do so. I didn’t like doing the name acrostic in the second grade. Oh, but I didn’t like doing it last week either.
So, I suppose this will be good for me, too, then. I’ll be forced to practice my social skills and distress tolerance while learning more DBT in a group setting. Something I do not like.
Oh, and, once again, I was that person in the group. Everyone was prompted to submit either a question about the group or what they hoped to get out of the group. Everyone submitted wonderful things. I must say that this a great group of people who want good things for themselves. I, on the other hand, was piqued by one of the DBT premises which is “There are no absolute truths.” Well, of course, there are! Why bother going to therapy or even living life if there are no absolute truths? I’m clever enough to know that this premise has a context. I also know that this premise, put into the wrong hands, can be used to manipulate so I wanted clarification. I was the only person in the group to submit a question, and my question centered around that premise. I said that there are, in fact, absolute truths particularly in interpersonal relationships. Every person has the right to feel safe and treated with respect. That is an absolute truth. Every person has the right to enforce certain boundaries around their personhood and sexuality, for example. That is also an absolute truth. In that context, how does DBT’s premise that there are no absolute truths apply? The group leaders could not adequately answer the question. They fumbled the ball. They tried to explain the notion of cognitive dissonance without calling it that. They would not admit that there are absolute truths but yet tried to say that there are true things in the world. It was very awkward.
I’m going to admit it here. This is going to be the one sticking point in the group for me. It’s not this premise. It’s the inadequacy of the leadership to communicate well. There are two other DBT premises: I am doing the best that I can followed by I can always do better. These two statements are called the ‘dialect’. Two true but opposing ideas that are held at the same time, and it’s hard to do. Combine these two ideas with ‘There are no absolute truths’ and it feels like a hornets’ nest. I could see myself arguing with the group leaders.
“So, you’re saying that when a mother beats her child in a rage, she is doing her best in that moment? And, really, there is nothing absolute about that? It’s not wrong, or it’s on the spectrum of wrong? And, for the mother, maybe she was, in fact, doing her best because she didn’t see any other options? I mean, at least she didn’t kill her child?”
Yeah, I will have to just sit back and listen and keep myself in line. I will also have to listen and observe. How will these group leaders apply the principles? Plus, I don’t have to personally agree with everything to get something beneficial out of this group. It is in no way all-or-nothing. We call this “spitting out the bones”. We take in what is useful and good and leave the rest.
This will be good, right? Right? Right.