Radically open dialectical behavior therapy, or RO DBT for short/reasonable, is an evidence-based treatment shown to reduce emotional loneliness. Many of my clients, as well as myself and many other therapists, tend toward an overcontrolled coping style, meaning we are often more inhibited than we want or than would be effective. RO DBT is a framework and skill set for opening up. The delicious irony is that it is also highly manualized and empirically validated, so fellow nerds, take heart: letting loose in the quite specific RO DBT sense will lead to better outcomes in relationships and all of life, not awkwardness, annoyingness, or anarchy.
I frequently use this graphic (whose source I regretfully cannot recall) to explain a core tenet of RO DBT: our “social signaling,” and how it can lead to either connection or isolation:
On the left, at the top, we have the strategy that many highly sensitive people, neurodivergent folks, people with traumatic or dysfunctional childhoods, members of racial, class, sexual or other minority groups, etc. employ: we mask. It often starts in middle school, at the onset of puberty, but can emerge whenever there is a real or perceived poorness of fit between us and the environment (e.g. agreeing that Mrs. Williams was "lame" for assigning too much boring reading when in fact I thought she was awesome and The Red Badge of Courage changed my life). Although masking can sometimes be effective in the short-term, relationships built on it often fail to deepen or become truly fulfilling, and/or they fall apart because people consciously or unconsciously smell bullshit. This leads to either loneliness in the phony relationship or loneliness for having been found out and rejected.
Part of what makes us vulnerable to masking is that when our modern minds evolved, tens of thousands of years ago, we lived in bands of a dozen or so individuals, and if those people thought you were defective, you were fucked; meaning, social ostricization from a tight band relying on each other for survival in an austere landscape meant death. It still kind of feels/is like that as a young child dependent on acceptance from a family of origin, or in middle school, but once we are adults, we have many many more choices and outlets for connection. So if you are still essentially scared that cool kids will shun you for admitting you raise carnivorous plants, speak Latin (regular, not pig), really like sex (as a woman), or even that you want to make a shit-ton of money and and such an admission is a poor fit for at least one social context in your life -- good news! There's someone out there who thinks that's dope! I promise. Risking being not liked is pretty much key to being liked. And boy howdy, it's great when you can drop the mask and feel loved for who you are. As Steven Hayes, developer of acceptance and commitment therapy, put it, "When we play false to feel accepted, we feel false even when we are accepted." And when we let our freak flags fly -- i.e., when we congruently socially signal -- we find our tribe.
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