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The Purple House: Learning to Forgive Yourself

My favourite colour has always been purple.  When I was in elementary school, living in a boring, grey stucco house, we had a neighbour who in my child’s eyes lived the charmed life.  Not only was her house raised via the slope of the road, it had a robust yard, wonderful views of our street and yes, was painted a deep royal purple.  She also had a cattery on her property which I would ride my gold painted bicycle with its banana seat up to admire.  I recall thinking as a young person that I would like nothing more than to live in a purple house with many cats.  Little did I know at the time, I would indeed to grow up and live in a purple house, albeit a metaphorical one.

“Purple” houses come up frequently in RO DBT treatment. As my clients come into later stages of treatment, typically session 14 on, there is a realization that how they have lived their lives as overcontrolled individuals has caused pain. This pain has sometimes materialized in abandoned relationships, rigid adherence to rules at the cost of connection, and the awakening that living an overcontrolled life – while reinforced – comes with other consequences including overcontrolled conditions such as anxiety, depression and restrictive eating disorders. And at the root of these, loneliness. I was talking recently with a client, who I will call Penny:

Penny: This whole RO thing has made me question a lot. For example, do I need to actually re-examine the valued goals I said I had at the beginning of our time together?

Nicole: That’s pretty cool that you have these questions, at the same time I am aware of imagining that is painful?

Penny: Yes, totally [pulls out laminated valued goals card]. For example, a valued goal I have is standing up for what is just.

Nicole: Mm-hmm, we talked earlier on about how people who lean to OC often are very justice minded.  So if there is energy attached to that, what might that be telling you?

Penny: Well, I have been getting feedback lately that adhering to this has actually alienated the very people I need to have on my side to get justice done. So here I am gaining these insights via self-enquiry but it IS painful. For god’s sake, I am 55 years old and so much time has been wasted living the wrong way! 

Nicole: Yeah, I am aware of imagining that there has been lots of painful insights, and thank you for telling me about this. I think your honesty is pretty courageous. I’m going to out myself to you here and let you know I had a similar response when I first started applying RO DBT to my life – yikes, all this time I thought I was doing the “right” thing. And remember, Penny, doing the “right thing” has been reinforced for both of us over time. And it can hurt to realize that our overlearned habits have created consequences we can’t always undo. But here’s the thing – imagine you hate the colour purple. And you wake up one day and discover you are living in a purple house. Knowing that means you can change it and start painting your house the colour that actually better represents you. And we don’t have to repaint the whole house today, how does that sound to you?

Penny: Good, although purple is actually one of my favourite colours (smiles)

Nicole: (Laughing): Mine, too! Maybe we should tell Tom to change this metaphor to a different colour!

What the above vignette demonstrates is that we don’t know what we don’t know. And so when therapists and clients begin to cultivate new insights into their habitual ways of being via self-enquiry, there can, indeed, be pain. From an RO DBT perspective, this is to be validated and celebrated. Of course, it may be that forgiving ourselves is the most challenging task. I encourage my clients to work on the RO DBT forgiveness skills so they do not remain in a state of rumination or harsh judgement for not knowing better or for hurting others through their exercising OC coping. We practice Flexible Mind has HEART which can have a powerful and lasting impact.

As for my own “purple house,” repainting has been arduous but worthwhile work. I can mourn what has been sacrificed in times I clung dearly to overcontrolled ways of coping (often without realizing it) and work at integrating RO DBT principles as best I can. And the future looks rosy – so maybe the new house will be pink. With a cattery and gold coloured bicycle, of course.

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.