Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a therapeutic methodology developed by Marsha M. Linehan, a psychology researcher at the University of Washington, to treat persons with borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation and reality-testing with concepts of mindful awareness, distress tolerance, and acceptance largely derived from Buddhist meditative practice. DBT is the first therapy that has been experimentally demonstrated to be effective for treating BPD. Research indicates that DBT is also effective in treating patients who represent varied symptoms and behaviors associated with spectrum mood disorders, including self-injury.
Linehan created DBT in response to her observation of therapist burnout after repudiating patients’ motivation to cooperate in successful treatment. Her first core insight was to recognize that the chronically (para)suicidal patients she studied had been raised in profoundly invalidating environments and required a climate of unconditional acceptance (not Carl Rogers’ humanistically "positive" version, but Thich Nhat Hanh’s metaphysically neutral one) in which to develop a successful therapeutic alliance. Her second insight concerned the need for a commensurate commitment from patients to (be willing to) change—subject to their skillfulness in the present moment--based on 'radical acceptance' of their dire level of emotional dysfunction.
Linehan united commitment to the core conditions of acceptance and change through the Hegelian principle of dialectical progress, in which thesis + antithesis → synthesis, and proceeded to assemble a modular array of skills for emotional self-regulation, drawn from Western (e.g., CBT and an interpersonal variant, “assertiveness training”) and Eastern (e.g., Buddhist mindfulness meditation) psychological traditions. Arguably her signal contribution was to elide the adversarial paradigm implicit in the hierarchical modernist therapeutic alliance, using the deconstructive spirit of Hegel and the Buddha to substitute a postmodern alliance based on intersubjective tough love.
All DBT involves two components:
- An individual component in which the therapist and patient discuss issues that come up during the week, recorded on diary cards and follow a treatment target hierarchy. Self-injurious and suicidal behaviors take first priority, followed by therapy interfering behaviors. Then there are quality of life issues and finally working towards improving one's life generally. During the individual therapy, the therapist and patient work towards improving skill use. Often, skills group is discussed and obstacles to acting skillfully are addressed.
- The group, which ordinarily meets once weekly for two to two-and-a-half hours, learns to use specific skills that are broken down into four modules: core mindfulness skills, interpersonal effectiveness skills, emotion regulation skills, and distress tolerance skills.
Neither component is used by itself; the individual component is considered necessary to keep suicidal urges or uncontrolled emotional issues from disrupting group sessions, while the group sessions teach the skills unique to DBT, and also provide practice with regulating emotions and behavior in a social context.
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