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May 30, 2022
For a couple of days, I lost my mind.
Well, I didn’t lose it; I misplaced my brain’s managing partner.
Before I figured it out, I was sleeping poorly and noticed my resting heart rate was going up. I felt tired, frustrated, and uninspired.
I heard myself labeling everyone and everything I disagreed with as ‘stupid.’
And then I got it. Everything ‘out there’ looked ‘stupid’ because I’d been feeling stupid and powerless over a world that felt too chaotic for me to take it all in, in one big bite, much less digest it.
I had been awfulizing and angsting for days about recent events. The Buffalo supermarket shootings, an unprovoked war, Roe vs. Wade, and the last punch, the mass slaying of helpless children, made me sure the world had gone mad.
Maybe unconsciously, I believed that ranting about it meant I was doing something? Perhaps it suggested I’m better than the perpetrators, and certainly, self-righteous indignation felt better to me than powerlessness.
But sitting and agonizing and resisting what was happening wasn’t changing anything for the better — not one little bit. It simply made me feel impotent.
The big squeeze.
After spinning in misery for a couple of days, I realized that I was in the grip of a ‘big squeeze.’
A squeeze is where we get something we don’t like or don’t get something we want. A beloved Buddhist writer and teacher, Pema Chodron, calls it ‘getting thrown out of the nest.’ Both phrases refer to life handing us something we don’t want.
From experience, I know that I can let the squeeze take me farther and farther down a rabbit hole, or it can be a tool acting as a reminder that though I’m not in charge of the world, I am in control of my reactions to it.
So what to do?
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Marsha Linehan developed DBT (Dialectic Behavior Therapy) to help folks with emotional intensity problems (Borderline Personality Disorder). Her work then extended to other conditions, including depression, substance use disorders, self-harm, anxiety, and eating disorders.
At its core, DBT helps people build four primary skills:
• Distress tolerance
• Interpersonal effectiveness
• Emotional regulation
Wait a minute! Aren’t those skills we all need when life knocks us off balance?
Whether you’re a CEO, retail salesperson, entrepreneur, partner, or parent, we all fall into the grip of the big squeeze. So who wouldn’t benefit from learning or brushing up on the essential skills that DBT teaches?
When the world does its thing and throws an unexpected curveball, wouldn’t you benefit from being more present, regulating your emotional reactions, managing yourself calmly through stressful situations, and improving how you navigate your relationships?
You can always come back to wise mind.
Linehan proposed that we have three minds:
1) rational mind — our logical, data-driven, ‘how-to’ mind;
2) emotional mind — intuitive, subjective, reactive, complex;
3) wise mind — the part of us that knows more than we think we know.
Some of us tend to rely more on our rational minds, and others lean toward making decisions from an emotional perspective.
A wise mind incorporates both. It is deliberate and thoughtful, and it considers all the mind’s experiences — emotions, rational thinking, intuition, values, and goals to make a decision.
When you’re in wise mind, you know better than to brush off an employee who brings a problem to your attention. You don’t flip off the guy in the car next to you who cut you off a while back. And after a hard day, you remember to walk into the house with a smile for whoever is home to greet you.
I don’t think any of us live in a perpetual state of wise mind. There are, however, things we can do to live there more often. And that brings us back to the basic DBT skills.
You don’t need a diagnosis to benefit.
DBT, in its fullness, is a comprehensive wrap-around approach that offers exceptionally comprehensive therapeutic support to clients while they learn to manage themselves more skillfully.
We don’t all need the degree of support that the entire DBT approach recommends — individual and group therapy and round-the-clock availability of therapeutic support from a team of trained therapists.
But I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t benefit from periodically brushing up on the basic skills.
How to use the skills.
I pulled out my copy of a DBT resource I often recommend to clients, DBT for Dummies by Gillian Galen and Blaise Aguirre.
I especially like this resource because the writers make it clear it’s unnecessary to read cover to cover. “This isn’t a novel that you need to read from start to finish. It’s more like when your children open up the fridge and take the things they want.” That’s how I love to learn!
So I checked out the detailed Table of Contents and went to the chapters that interested me most.
I had been swimming in a black and white world of ‘what’s wrong with them?’ for days. So I went directly to the explanation of dialectics — the idea that seemingly opposing experiences such as thoughts, emotions, or behaviors can co-exist. In other words, “that two ideas that are seemingly in complete opposition to each other can be true simultaneously.”
That was what I needed — to look at the world from multiple perspectives. Not to fix it, agree with it, or prefer it, but to better understand it. And to pull me out of the emotional quagmire in which I was swimming.
You can’t have one without the others.
Then I eyeballed all four skills — mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation to see how they interconnect. Hard to have one without pulling from the others.
Mindfulness will bring you back to the here and now so that you can effectively manage your reactions to stressful situations (distress tolerance). It will allow you to notice when your internal reactions and external responses are over-blown (emotional regulation). And it will help you consider the impact of your responses on other people (interpersonal effectiveness).
Exploring distress tolerance has been helpful. It reminded me that there is a massive difference between spilling a cup of coffee and being fired from a job. In my case, I noticed I was reacting with the same degree of intensity to a random comment from a shady politician as I was responding to global tragedies.
It’s arrogant to think that skill-building is just for people with clinical conditions or traumatic childhoods.
By honing these four skills, you might not eliminate madness in the world around you, but at the very least, you won’t add to it.
If you’re ready to take your leadership and self-management skills to the next level, check out DBT for Dummies or google the four skills. Or better yet, get in touch with me in the comments if you’d like additional resources. I’d love to hear from you.
Check in with yourself at home, at work, or in the car when somebody cuts you off, and you find yourself in a big squeeze, i.e., your body is a coiled spring, and you’re ready to hurl an expletive.
With practice, you can create peace even in the eye of the storm, knowing that whatever is causing the squeeze will pass because literally, everything does. And in the interim, you can manage yourself.