Yoda said it best, “Do or do not, there is no try” while training Luke Skywalker on the ways of the Jedi in The Empire Strikes Back. Residents in our DBT groups recognize this statement when we ask them to become their own Force, to commit to a more meaningful life.
All humans approach change with trepidation. Change is uncomfortable, it’s difficult, and we might fail at it. Such is the path to a meaningful life. It’s uncomfortable dealing with issues instead of numbing ourselves through old coping skills. It’s difficult to remember and practice something new and we are likely to fail at it sometimes – making choices that better reflect who we were, instead of who we are choosing to become.
When discussing using skills, our DBT Specialists ask residents to commit for the next week to specific goals – returning to the anchor in mindfulness, practicing a specific Distress Tolerance skill, using DEARMAN to approach an important topic in family therapy. From our new residents the response is, without fail, “I’ll try.” That response is met with grins by residents who have been at TK for a while, since they know what is coming next, as they themselves probably went through this same exercise.
When someone tells us they will “try” to get to something, we ask them this: try to pick up your water bottle (or whatever other small object is around). Invariably they pick it up; therefore, we reinforce, “No, you picked it up. I want you to TRY to pick it up.” Now, the resident will not touch the water bottle, in attempt to follow direction. So the therapist reminds them, “No, TRY to pick it up, you’re not picking it up, I want you to TRY to pick it up.” This goes on for a while, depending on the flexibility of the resident, the group leader, and the group as a whole. Usually everyone ends up laughing, which is when we discuss the point: you can pick up the water bottle or you cannot. You can do it or not. “Try” doesn’t exist. The group leader asks for the commitment to new behavior again, and usually the resident commits.
By asking for commitment to a meaningful life or taking new steps, we are not sitting in judgment of actions that fail to meet those goals. People are reluctant to “commit” because they see “failure” as the only inevitable outcome; and who likes to fail? Here is where we bring the dialectic of DBT into the equation: of course you will fail along the way. Creating a meaningful life is extremely hard, and you will make mistakes. We accept those “failures” as part of our process of change. Those mishaps on the way are an overall part of the path. By purposefully setting up a relationship where no judgments, only problem solving, meet the “failures” of our commitments, it is amazing what people will do to find the Force within themselves.
This “trying” exercise is based on one set forth by Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson in their 1999, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. ACT is an excellent experiential companion to DBT.