The recent presidential election has provoked feelings of fear, anger, and helplessness among many Americans. Emotionally charged conversations are taking place between friends, family and coworkers. This election highlights a division along seemingly irreconcilable ideological lines; it feels like “us” vs “them.” For the last few weeks here in Asheville, smoke from nearby wildfires has added an ominous shadow, seeming to suggest dark times to come. Difficult times call for what Buddhists refer to as “skillful means:” responding with compassion and wisdom and doing what works in any given situation. Some people seem to be naturally skillful, managing the challenges of life with relative ease. Many of us struggle at times to manage our emotional responses and act effectively. So how do we get skillful means?
One way is through DBT. Originally developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD. for people with high risk suicidal and self harm behaviors, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has since been adapted to treat depression, eating disorders and substance use disorders (to name but a few). “Dialectical” refers to a synthesis of opposing forces. In DBT, emphasis is put on both acceptance and change. The DBT skills, while only one component of comprehensive DBT treatment, provide a foundation for adaptive functioning. The skills are nothing fancy; they are simple strategies for regulating emotions, navigating relationships and tolerating the pain that is inevitable in life while minimizing the suffering. They increase resilience and empower us to build what Linehan refers to as a “life worth living.” These are the skills our parents might have taught us but often didn’t. I am going to highlight three of my favorite DBT skills, with suggestions for how they might help us to handle this and other difficult circumstances with skillful means.
1. Wise Mind: Wise Mind is the synthesis of reason and emotion. It is the state of mind in which what we feel is b alanced by what we know and reflects a deeper wisdom, akin to intuition. For many survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, the election of a man who has been accused of and bragged about sexual assault feels like a massive invalidation. It affirms for many that the powerful can do what they want to the vulnerable and that the world is indeed a dangerous place. While we can not deny this reality, we can balance it with the knowledge that there are safe spaces, loving people and accepting communities. Wise Mind is the ability to sit with and contain such opposing truths.
2. Radical Acceptance: Radical Acceptance simply means accepting reality as it is. Radically accepting our current situation does NOT mean that we have to like it, or settle for it or resign ourselves to it. Radical Acceptance is not the same as giving up. Rather, Radical Acceptance is an honest acknowle dgment of and openness to what is. So let’s radically accept some ugly truths. We can start by avoiding language that obscures meaning and sanitizes reality. Let’s call white supremacy white supremacy. Let's acknowledge that racism, misogyny and xenophobic anxiety are powerful and omnipresent forces in contemporary life. Let’s also acknowledge that not everyone believes as we believe and while we may oppose those beliefs, they have been arrived at from a unique set of experiences and circumstances. Only from a position of Radical Acceptance of our current reality can we possibly hope to initiate efforts toward change.
3. Opposite Action: Opposite Action refers to changing feelings that are causing suffering and /or not serving us. If we feel angry and our anger energizes and inspires us to take effective action then I would suggest our anger is serving a useful purpose. But if our anger turns to bitterness, despair and destructiveness, we won’t be effective and we will only harm ourselves. Opposite Action in this context might entail practicing acts of kindness. Please do not mistake this for an admonition to just “love everyone because love solves everything, etc.” Yet practicing kindness might temper our anger to something that feels more manageable and that can be used to productive ends. Also, it does not hurt to treat someone kindly; we might experience kindness in return.
When I reflect on my own life, past and present, I don’t see myself acting with particularly skillful means. I see myself muddling and bumbling much of the time. While I certainly believe passionately and care deeply, my feelings haven’t always moved me to effective action. Like many of you, my emotional response to this election has been raw and haphazard. I still do not know what to do, what actions will be most effective and true to what I believe. I do know that in the end how I choose to respond- how we all choose to respond- matters, and that whatever actions we decide to take will be effective only if we can balance compassion and caring, thought and feelings- in other words, if we can find it in ourselves to use skillful means.
Julia Levine, LCSW, specializes in recovery support, self-harm behaviors, high conflict relationships and parenting teens.