Not a Fragile Flower
I have the most amazing clients. Lara is brilliant, emotional, artistic. In the throes of her emotional intensity, she sends me heartbreakingly beautiful poetry and drawings worthy of a Tim Burton film. It took her a year and a half of weekly therapy to be able to draw again, after being told all of her life that her art was useless. Selena is a round peg living in a world of square holes. Her ability to see things from a different perspective make her particularly talented at finding beauty in places others would never see it. She has lived most of her life desperately trying to fit in. Sophie is a free spirit, caged by the expectations of society that she live a stable, productive life. She has an adventurous spirit, ready to explore the world.
All three of these women came to therapy believing that they were broken. Viewed by those around them as fragile and “too sensitive”, their innate creativity and talents were ignored or criticized. Traditional therapies tend to focus on the problems with functioning or lead to insights without change. Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD, balances the importance of validating the experience of the client with the requirements of functioning in the world. Acceptance of the sensitivity and intensity these women were born with, balanced with the reality of functioning means developing skills to change how they interact with the world.
Over the course of their therapy, I worked with them to recognize the gift and the burden of their creative, sensitive, intense minds. Most people do not know how to respond to a person who is emotional and intense. It is overwhelming when your friend, lover, or family member responds to a simple statement by bursting into tears or screaming at you. This leads to a typical response of something like, “why are you overreacting?” or “you are such a drama queen!” Just in case you have not yet figured it out, these are not effective responses and usually lead to more intense emotions. A more effective response is validation. Validation is a recognition that every emotion occurs as a result of something. It allows the person to relax, knowing that she is not intrinsically wrong or bad. Even an emotion that comes from a misperception is valid. It is the perception that is invalid, not the emotion. When I have a client who is upset, the most important response I can have is validation of the emotion(s). Once the emotion has run its course and she is calm, then we can explore any misperceptions or solve any problems. This is the balance of acceptance and change. Validation is acceptance of the emotion, a necessary first step to any problem solving.
If I were to leave it there, however, a client’s life would probably not get much better. Research shows, in fact, that DBT is effective in making it much better and has lasting results. My clients did not come to me because they were happy with their lives as they were. They knew they needed to make changes in their lives. Once the intensity of a client’s emotion has dropped, we can make changes. Now she is ready to engage her mind and her creativity. We look at the situation that led to the intense emotional response and analyze what she can do differently in the future. We practice the skills in session, and she practices them between sessions.
Lara learned to recognize her emotions, to name them, then to accept them. The process involved quieting her mind until she could observe the physical signs of the emotion. It sounds simple to read it on your screen, but this process required months of practice and support. Accepting emotions can be incredibly challenging, especially if people have told you all your life that your emotions are not real, are not valid, or are ruining everything. Now, she has learned to accept her emotions most of the time and to validate them herself.
Selena had to learn that her perspective and ideas have merit. She had to accept that other people might not agree with her, while recognizing that she could appreciate her own creativity. Rather than constantly attempting to force others to appreciate her value, she can now do it for herself. This opened up her attention so that she could notice what others around her are saying. She is less annoying to others and is now getting the positive attention she always craved. We achieved this through constant validation, mixed with observations about how others might respond to her mannerisms and style of communicating.
Sophie was living in constant chaos, wanting to be free to follow her dreams, but constantly judging herself for being a free spirit. The people in her life wanted her to settle down, get a “real job” and start paying a mortgage. We worked together to develop enough structure in her life that she could keep a job that pays her bills until she figures out how to live the life she wants. A chaotic life kept her trapped in a maelstrom of losing jobs, changing her goals, growing debt, and broken relationships. Adding structure to her life gave her enough security to allow her to make goals that she can achieve, then plan for them and eventually reach them.
These three women were feeling broken, seeing their natural creativity, intense emotions, and spirit as flaws. With the aid of validation, acceptance, and skills, they are changing their lives and using those qualities to thrive!
Please note: the details have been obscured and names changed in order to protect the privacy of these clients.