This is the second blog in this series on Radically-Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (RO DBT). You can view the first blog here.
As review, we learned about Radically Open Dialectical Behavior in the first blog. RO DBT is an evidence-based treatment targeting a spectrum of problems characterized by overcontrol (Lynch, 2018). Radical Openness is the primary principle that represents three capacities essential for emotional wellbeing: openness, flexibility, and social connectedness. It requires actively seeking areas of our lives that feel uncomfortable, in order to learn (Lynch, 2018). It can help adults, young adults, and adolescents of different cultures, coping with chronic depression, autism, anorexia nervosa, treatment resistant anxiety, perfectionism, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
Self-control is defined as the ability to suppress competing urges, impulses, behaviors, or desires and delay gratification in order to pursue distant goals. It is often equated with success and happiness. Whereas too much self-control or overcontrol has been linked to social isolation, rigidity, poor social functioning, and hyper perfectionism. Individuals who are overcontrolled in how they cope, tend to be serious about life, set high personal standards, behave appropriately, value honesty, fairness, doing the right thing, and frequently will sacrifice personal needs in order to achieve desired goals or help others.
Part of what overcontrolled individuals long for is connection and belonging with others. They seek to feel like they fit. They attempt to connect by overcontrolling their outward expression of inward emotion as a way to feel accepted. They seek to belong so they cope by maintaining rigid and perfectionistic personal standards in the hopes that this will help them be accepted. For example, overcontrolled individuals may think that if they say something in a way that is perceived negatively, people will reject them. So, they assume it would be better to not say anything. They assume if they are not the best on the soccer team, then they are not good enough as a person. Or since they were rejected when they were bullied, they believe it is not safe to trust others. This leads to feelings of defeat and loneliness based on experiences where they feel disconnected from others. RO DBT focuses on joining a tribe where an overcontrolled individual can feel safe and express vulnerability to create authentic connection with others.
Humans exhibit unprecedented cooperation with unrelated others in order to achieve common goals. For example, on 09/11/01, people of all different races, religions, and backgrounds came together to help one another on that harrowing day in history. Our ultimate survival weapon is friendship, and you only need one friend to feel safe (Lynch, 2018). Self-control is needed for tribes to work together and thrive. However, overcontrol can be problematic. Bio-temperamental factors, meaning, the genetic and biological predispositions that affect how we perceive the world and how we regulate emotion, may be the driving force behind excessive self-control because they influence and interfere with perception, learning, and overt behavior on a preconscious level (Lynch, 2018). While temperament is biological, trait is the combination of biology and the environment. For example, if you tend to be a rule follower naturally and grew up in a home where your parents often yelled, overshared their feelings with others, and you perceived they were rejected by others, this may cause you to act opposite of how you perceived your parents in order to be accepted. For example, a mom shares the difficulties happening at home with the cashier at the grocery. The child observed the grocery employee showing outward expression of discomfort and confusion. As a result, the overcontrolled adult feels they never know what to expect. This situation from the past felt out of control, so coping mechanisms were put in play so that the adult does not experience rejection from others in the same way.
Individuals learn to mask emotions in an effort to avoid feeling out of control. Overcontrolled individuals work and strive to achieve long term goals and oftentimes forget how to relax, play, or join in with others. This avoidance stems from deep-seated fear of being socially humiliated. Therefore, being silly is therapeutic. When we feel part of a tribe, we feel safe. The key mechanism of change in RO DBT is the concept of open expression leading to trust. Trust then leads to social connection. Overcontrolled individuals learned from their experiences and are pre dispositioned to think that keeping their emotions in check, hiding vulnerability, and social signals neutral will make it appear they are in control of their emotions. However, this inhibited expression of emotion, leads to masked inner feelings and causes others to perceive them as inauthentic. All of this results in social disconnection. Overcontrolled individual who tries very hard to do what they perceive as the “right” thing experiences social disconnect as failure, and this way is quite distressing.
Tribal bonds begin with two people (or a group or three or more) making self-sacrifices to benefit the well-being of other tribal members or the tribe itself without always expecting something in return (Lynch, 2018). Tribes are founded on shared values and goals. Some tribes we are born into (family) while others may be forced upon us (prison inmates). It is hopeful news for an overcontrolled individual to learn it only takes one other person to feel accepted, create belonging, and receive the message of safety to share what feels hard to share. Think about what it feels like to share vulnerabilities with a best friend and how good it feels to be seen and accepted by them. Tribal connections are created when you discover what it means to be “us”. There is a sense that others have your back when you are vulnerable and being with them can put you at ease. We do not have to have the same cultural background/ identity or the same family history; instead, we can choose our tribe and tribal identity. During times of extreme crisis, we work together and put aside individual differences, backgrounds, and beliefs. We can unite for a common cause, such as 9/11. On that day, it did not matter what your personal beliefs were. There was a common experience in that historic tragedy and being bonded in a shared experience that day.
In review, overcontrolled individuals are bio-temperamentally predispositioned to behave in ways that leave them disconnected from their tribe and put them at high risk for isolation, loneliness, and distress. To form lasting bonds, one must reveal vulnerability. When we reveal our feelings to others, it says that we trust them, and we share a common bond in our human fallibility. Tribe matters for overcontrolled individuals. It is the place to learn to be more flexible and open and to create social connectedness. Social connectedness is part of the RO DBT remedy for isolation and loneliness. It is the place where we can agree on common goals and values. Overcontrolled individuals can learn to safely connect through vulnerability and see the value in play again.
Lynch, T. R., & Lynch, T. R. (2018). The skills training manual for Radically open dialectical behavior therapy: A clinician’s guide for treating disorders of overcontrol.
Wilder, E. J., Khouri, E. M., Coursey, C. M., & Sutton, S. D. (2014). Joy starts here: The transformation zone.