Are you the kind of person who gets really excited when a person hands you a gift, you open it immediately, and then you throw your hands in the air with joy over what you got (like my daughter in this picture)? Or are you are the type of person who sets the gift aside and nonchalantly says, “Oh, I’ll open it later” because you really don’t want to open the gift in front of the person? This topic first popped up several months ago when a client in my RO DBT class shared her homework about understanding her overcontrolled coping. And, it has been swirling in my head since, particularly as we wrap up the holiday season, which typically includes a lot of giving and receiving gifts. Who would have thought that such a simple behavior (to open or not to open a gift in front of someone) could tap into so many areas that are relevant to RO DBT and help explain the concept of overcontrol!
So, let me start by going back to the client’s homework about her overcontrolled coping. The client shared her homework about receiving going-away gifts when she left her job. She waited until she was alone in her car to open up the gifts. She was engaging in avoidance coping, which she learned was one of her habits of controlling social situations. She said that she has always “hated opening gifts in front of people,” but she didn’t really understand what that was about until she started RO DBT.
RO DBT uses a neurobiosocial model for describing disorders of overcontrol. One of the biological/temperament factors that are found prevalent with people who are overcontrolled is that they have low reward sensitivity. What does that mean, you might ask? Well, it means they don’t get as excited about things, like opening presents. This is a huge bummer because they don’t experience the physiological effects of positive emotions. This can be a problem, because if a person doesn’t feel high reward, then they definitely aren’t going to express it.
Not expressing or social signaling positive affect can have several consequences. First, for the client in my class, she shared that as a kid, her parents would get angry with her because she didn’t get excited when others gave her gifts. They thought that she wasn’t being respectful and grateful because her social signaling came across as being disinterested. This created a sense of pressure for the client to “act” in a certain way and actually reduced any reward that she might have experienced getting a gift. As a result, this led to one of her overcontrolled coping habits, which was to abandon those types of situations or avoid them if possible. Thus, she is the person who would say, “Oh, you want me to open the gift now? Um, oh I’ll just wait and open it later.” This kind of social situation, where she feels she has to “act” excited or happy, has increased her desire to isolate.
The consequence of her overcontrolled coping has been emotional loneliness. The client stated that she felt lonely sitting in the car opening her gifts. She realized that she missed an opportunity for her former co-workers to express how they felt about working with her. By opening her gifts “in private,” she was left with her own interpretations and judgments regarding the gifts and the meaning she placed on them. By the way, none of her thoughts were positive. Several other class participants resonated with this client’s dislike of opening gifts in front of other people. This topic led to a wonderful discussion in our class about how our social signaling and our overcontrolled coping strongly impacts relationships.
As this holiday season wraps up, I wonder about the client that was in my RO DBT class. I wonder if she opened gifts in the presence of others, and if she did, how she social signaled. Next time you give or receive a gift, notice whether it’s opened at the time or saved for later. It might have no significance or maybe it’s a sign of overcontrol showing up!
About the Author: Kristen Fritsinger, MSW, LICSW
Kristen is a partner at DBT Associates in Fridley, MN. She works with adolescents and adults, specializing in depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and personality disorders.
Kristen has been practicing RO DBT since 2015, providing individual RO DBT therapy and co-facilitating an RO DBT class. She is an introductory trainer for RO DBT, co-leading one day workshops on the introduction of RO DBT. She receives supervision from Dr. Tom Lynch. She is now a supervisor for therapists who wish to receive RO DBT supervision.