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April 1, 2022

The Power of Practicing Your DBT Skills

I love hip-hop. The beat, the poetry, the stories of struggle, the rhythm, the moves, and breakdancing is my home. I grew up in South Seattle, where I did not feel like a minority. Most of my neighbors, classmates, and friends were like my family and me — immigrants from Asia, first and second generation, Polynesian or Black. 

My community bonded over and savored music from Earth Wind and Fire, Lionel Richie, BBD, TLC, and LL Cool J just to name a few. I knew of Eminem as an underground rapper before he became famous. The Pharcyde, Fugees, and the Roots’ Illadelph Halflife were on constant rotation. I even kicked it with Black Eyed Peas before Fergie was in the group, and saw Maseo of De La Soul at a funeral in 2018.

So naturally, I follow Questlove on IG and when he has something to say, I’m interested. I hung on to hip-hop's every word as a youngster. And now, as a psychologist, this video had me at hello. Not “hello” hello, but rather “HELLO, WAKE UP!” 

In it, Questlove speaks about the Power of Practicing and references Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory from Outliers, which is that people who do well in their craft put in the hours. Questlove says he clocked in his 10,000 as a kid and still practices regularly.

This was when I realized the fine print of mental health is practice. Practice. (Yes, Allen Iverson, we will talk about practice, lol.) 

Psychology research is not direct enough to say that if you want to keep up with your mental health (better mood, enhanced relationships, controlling minor addiction, maintaining healthy coping mechanisms) you have to PRACTICE your skills. 

What are DBT skills?

“Skills” are anything that helps you keep going. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) certainly coaches on many different skills. My skills are to eat healthily, to be kind to myself and to my husband, to have a creative outlet (like writing blogs), and exercise. To be clear, I do not want to exercise; I exercise for the after feelings, never the before. 

Skills help you get out of bed, align yourself with your values, and emotionally regulate. Skills should be standard practice — just listen to Lady Gaga

Willing Hands: An effective skill for intense and uncomfortable emotions 

Willing Hands is a skill known to DBT by author and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, which is primarily used to combat anger. You can watch Marsha Linehan explain Willing Hands, but I’ll tell you how it’s done. 

When you feel a sense of anger washing over you, place your palms facing up on your lap when seated or facing forward on your sides when standing. 

This position helps you accept your emotions, opens your mind to being… open, and allows the emotion(s) to pass. Clients are initially skeptical. They say, “Really, Clara? That sounds woo-woo.” I say, “Umm, ya… Try it!” 

It also helps with feeling hurt, sad, and embarrassed, which are uncomfortable feelings in your body. You might find yourself wanting to cross your arms or curl up into yourself rather than practice Willing Hands. But you don’t have to practice for long to see the benefits. You just have to start. 

It’s not a natural ability or God-given talent. It’s practice. 

As Questlove said, with phrases like “touched by God” and “a born natural”, practicing isn’t often consistent with popular opinions of greatness. I agree. After more than a decade of providing individual psychotherapy, clients feel like failures when they are doing well in their therapy and then suddenly slide into a depressive episode, intense thought loops, feelings of loneliness, or the experience of grief.

This brought up a few questions for me:

  • How could I help society embrace that practicing means every day? 
  • How do I help our social understanding that practicing skills is healthy?
  • How could we *not* shame each other for needing to practice?
  • How could we *not* shame ourselves?
  • How could we better support and encourage each other to practice?
  • How could we motivate each other *not* to judge negative emotions?

I try to make an impact with my clients by reminding them to practice their skills, by asking them to treat themselves kindly even when they slide into old habits. And this blog is me trying to make an impact on curious readers like you. So take this with you… there’s no shame in working on yourself. No one is born flawless. There are no perfect people. And we could all use a little practice.  

Here’s Your Homework:

Try Willing Hands now for a few seconds. Observe how it feels in your body. Observe how your mind changes from rapid thoughts to slower, calmer thoughts. Observe if it feels uncomfortable. Practice daily, not for long periods.

Tip For Parents:

John Gottman's, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, 1998, suggests being aware of your child’s emotions and using this as an opportunity to label the emotion as well as listen to and validate the emotion(s). It turns out emotional labeling is a skill that you could practice

Emotions beget other emotions, so one emotion usually has an emotional friend. For instance, sadness and anxiety are homies; anxiety and fear are tight. Emotions change; keep practicing labeling them.