Chilling Out is Therapeutic – Even for RO DBT Therapists

When I teach skills class, I will confess I kinda cringe when we get to lesson 5.  Week 5 is dedicated to Engaging in Novel Behaviour and includes a discussion of the art of non-productivity.  For someone who leans toward over control (OC), my brain automatically switches the term “non-productivity” to “laziness.”  I cringe because despite the personal work I have done through my involvement as a RO DBT therapist, supervisor and trainer, “the art of non-productivity” remains my albatross.

For those unfamiliar with this lesson, let me walk you briefly through it. For our OC clients, they are biologically hardwired to be risk adverse and as a result, often engage in rigid and rule governed behaviours.  This can be as seemingly benign as driving the same route every day to work or more intrusive as seen with rituals associated with anxiety or Anorexia Nervosa. We teach engagement in novel behaviours through the skills Flexible Mind VARIEs where we ask clients to:

V– Verify one’s willingness to experience something new

A – Check the Accuracy of hesitancy, aversion, or avoidance

R – Relinquish compulsive planning, rehearsal or preparation

I – Activate one’s social safety system and the Initiate new behaviour

E – Nonjudgmentally evaluate the outcome

Novel behaviours also require a willingness to be a bit silly or non-productive; mammals are innately capable of play and playfulness is no laughing matter!  Play serves to reinforce both cognitive and social emotional skills, and allows us to deepen our intimacy with others.  But for our OC clients (and therapists!) this can be challenging.  We know this and as such, supply a list of self-enquiry questions (see page 133-134 of the skills manual) to help elicit the “edges” that may arise. For my clients I often tell them this story:

So I want you to imagine a woman who lived in an 800 square foot apartment with one cat.  She had a rule that work always came before play.  So she would make sure the house was clean, the cat box taken care of, emails answered and inbox to zero, dishes washed and put away, and all errands were run. She often caught up on her paid work after hours and prided herself on her work ethic.  Only when everything was done could she relax and maybe watch a movie or go out to see some live music.  Often, though, she noticed that her “relaxation” was centred on gaining her next personal best time on her bike or watching Ted Talks that could be included in her teaching. 

Normally, my clients see this as perfectly acceptable behaviour.  It kinda makes sense, doesn’t it?  Get the “to do” out of the way so you can get “to be.”  However, the story continues:

Now imagine this same person gets into a romantic relationship, complete with aging in-laws, ends up with 3 cats and 3 dogs and moves into a 1500 square foot house with a yard. Her work ethic has gained her a promotion at work requiring much more responsibility. Wow, so much to do! Can you imagine how much email, house cleaning and poop that translates to?

I then ask my clients:

Does her rule of work before play or rest seem to make sense in this context?

Clients resonate with this story  and tell me of course the woman should chill out a bit– they see themselves in it, on the treadmill of “to do” without pause and often experiencing resentment because of how hard they work.  I then tell my clients that this is not fiction but my own experience, and learning to balance work and play is a work in progress.  So I do not smuggle in that this is the “hardest” skill (because it is for me, tee-hee) but rather “out” myself in relation to this module.

Of course, as I write this, I recognize it is Friday night.  A friend has invited me to see a band later on and still I am perseverating on how to fit the vacuuming in!  So I will close here, practice Flexible Mind Varies and continue to walk the talk.  And maybe dance a bit.

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.