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Take it Teasy

I have been giving more thought to the concept of teasing lately. Often in my experience as an educator and clinical supervisor, I have noted how clinical assessments and case conceptualizations sometimes conflate teasing with bullying. “Oh, he was really teased in middle school” or “my parents were relentless teasers.”  And the use of these terms –teasers and bullies- as interchangeable when discussing developmental trajectory and social history of our OC clients is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it assumes that any teasing is pejorative in intention. Secondly, such conflation assumes that teasing is inherently cruel.  Thirdly, it smuggles to clients that teasing is somehow dangerous and something to be avoided at all costs.  And fourthly, it forecloses on the opportunity to teach the difference between a tease and a niggle and how teasing is a necessary pro-social signal that allows us to give our tribe feedback, without rubbing their nose in it.

According to Lynch (2018), “Friends playfully and affectionately tease each other all the time.  Research shows that teasing and joking are how friends informally point out flaws in each other, without being too heavy-handed about it” (p.166).  Teasing is, in short, part of our social glue, and some cultures –broad brushed- are more attuned to this than others. An example I can share is working with a Cree colleague many years ago who teased me about my penchant for presentation cue cards and my British heritage reaction was one of insult.  She in turn, was surprised by my interpretation and said to me, ‘for goodness sake, I was just teasing you!”  Upon reflection of this exchange many years later, she was trying to join with me as a perfectionist in crime, and also communicate that guess what?  Teasing does not kill, it creates alliances.  For a member (of any culture) who leans toward overcontrol (OC), teasing is often interpreted as criticism, chastisement or indirect communication regarding imperfection.  We can see how someone hyper-vigilant to threat, as our OC clients and OC therapists temperamentally are, would interpret a tease as cruel feedback.  But from an RO DBT perspective, “a good tease is always kind” (Lynch, 2018, p.167) and “when teasing is playful and reciprocal it is socially bonding” (p.167).

To be clear, a tease is light-hearted but must be delivered with an appeasement gesture that matches the feedback being given. As an example, a recent tease from my partner went like this:

Deanne: Where do you think we should go for dinner?

Nicole: How about that Jamaican place?

Deanne: Honey, that’s been closed for 2 years!

Nicole: Really?

Deanne: I guess if they don’t serve RO DBT on the menu you are not paying much attention! [and then she winked and smiled]

In this example, the feedback is that I have been pretty immersed in RO DBT, sometimes to the detriment of noticing other details.  This obviously includes being oblivious to the disappearance of the restaurant, but also gently implies I might be so focused on my work I could be missing other important daily aspects of my life.

So when is a tease not a tease, but a niggle?  A niggle is intended to look like a tease, but lacks a musical voice tone, has no adjoining appeasement gestures, and is felt like a visceral barb on part of the receiver.  I vividly recall working with a woman many years ago.  Another staff member was leaving her position:

Colleague X: I am sad that colleague Y decided to move on.

Nicole: Me too, but I always got the sense she didn’t like being on shift with me.

Colleague X: Really?  I thought that was everyone else [said with a flat monotone, with no facial expression but a stare].

Ouch.  That one hurt!  And the worst thing about a niggle is that it has plausible deniability; had I asked Colleague X to explain, she could have easily followed up with, “what? I was just teasing, don’t be so sensitive.”

In RO DBT therapy, skills class, team consultation and supervision, teasing is essential and in Dr. Lynch’s words, a cousin to a fundamental stance of playful irreverence. In therapy, teasing on part of the therapist serves to block maladaptive behaviour but also models how friends interact and signals affection. This sometimes takes clients by surprise as they may have been used to therapy as Serious, Negative, Orderly, Rigid and intensE (e.g. SNORE).  In skills class, co-facilitators often tease one another to demonstrate an easy going manner (big shout out to Amanda Turner, who facilitated class with me for 3 years.  Love you RO comrade!); side effects include closer working relationships, having fun at work and encouraging class members to tease you.  Teasing in team consultation is essential practice, especially for OC therapists who might shy away from teasing.  In my supervision of RO therapists, I tease the hell out of them and encourage them to practice teasing at home, at the office and at trainings.

As I reflect on my own growth through RO DBT, learning to tease – and recover from teases that fall flat- has been instrumental in being more open with friends, family, colleagues and clients.  This has been in conjunction with another fundamental RO concept of taking myself just a little less seriously, as being able to laugh at your own foibles (self-teasing as opposed to rumination) is fundamental to psychological health.  Now where to go for dinner tonight?  I hope RO DBT is on the menu!


About the author: J. Nicole Little, Ph.D., R.C.C.

Nicole is a therapist specializing in eating disorders and other conditions of overcontrol in Victoria, B.C., Canada.  She has also taught for 13 years at Universities and colleges. Her passions are RO DBT and animal assisted therapy.