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Stacy Pershall

Stacy Pershall M.F.A.

Dealing with Holiday Drama Using DBT

Dialectical behavior therapy skills can help you resolve family conflicts.

We’re three days into 2014, and so far every friend with whom I’ve discussed the recent holidays had some degree of family drama. Whether there was a sudden epidemic or this is par for the course doesn’t matter. What matters is that my friends and I reverted to that place where past grievances conspire to make you feel 14 years old and/or crazy. A week of sleeping in your childhood bedroom certainly doesn’t help.

This has me thinking again about the DBT interpersonal effectiveness skills, which have become a sort of (very long) mantra by which I live my life. One of my favorite DBT skills, the one to which I find myself returning most often, is Check the Facts—make a list of only the things you know for sure are true, then make a list of things you feel are true.

For example, my good friend—we’ll call her Jess—had a serious blowout with her dad. Jess was sick, and her dad deals with chronic immune issues that makes him especially susceptible to germs. Her dad had what might be considered an extreme response to Jess’ flu, and it ended with a major fight in which her dad told her not to come home again. An example of checking the facts might be: Jess knows for sure that her dad gets sick easily. She knows her dad fears germs. What she does not know for sure is that her dad will never speak to her again, or that he thinks she’s a horrible person.

In my case, when a family member got angry with me, I apologized but didn't get a response. Instead, the person chose to express displeasure with me—though, thankfully, not by name—on social media.

These are the things I know for sure: the family member is angry. He has stopped speaking to me and other members of our family for extended periods. Things I do not know for sure: that the family member is deliberately trying to hurt me with tweets, or that the current silent treatment will never end. In checking the facts, I remember that the previous two times this person stopped speaking to me, the intervals lasted three years and two years. When I check the facts, the situation looks more hopeful than hopeless. If I can handle a period of silence, which hurts but is survivable, I can calm down about things right now. I can turn down the desperation; the emotional fever pitch.

I don't have to live without someone forever; I just have to live without him for a while.

After you’ve checked the facts and calmed down, the next rational and compassionate step is to make a sincere attempt to apologize for anything that was your fault and offer to listen to the other person’s point of view without interrupting. If their response is to continue bullying you, gaslighting you, or giving you the silent treatment, calmly and non-judgmentally ask them two questions:

1. How does it serve you to hold a grudge? In what way does hanging onto negative emotions make you happier, help you help others, and bring peace to your life?

2. How does the choice not to address those emotions and the resultant behavior in therapy serve you? In what way does that choice make you happier, help you help others, and bring peace to your life?

If you have asked someone these questions and they refuse to answer directly, rationally, or at all, you can rest assured that their behavior comes from their own unhappiness and not your selfishness. You can therefore let them go without guilt or remorse, send a beam of hope into the universe that they do what it takes to get happy, and devote your energy to working on yourself. Worrying what they think of you, holding onto your negative emotions regarding them, does not serve you, and life is all about becoming a self-actualized human being.

This is just one example of putting the greater good above personal emotion. I challenge you to search, always, for other ways of doing so. If you have some good examples of using DBT skills during the holidays, please post in the comments!


About the Author

Stacy Pershall

Stacy Pershall is the author of Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl (2011; Norton), chosen for the Barnes and Noble spring 2011 Discover Great New Writers program.