As I was facilitating the weekly Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group on Tuesday night, the example of Serena Williams’ behavior during the U.S. Open seemed a natural fit to illustrate how Radical Acceptance can be used to avoid making things worse. As I was explaining what Radical Acceptance is and how it can be helpful, which can be difficult to shift one’s thinking to grasp this concept, the match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka during the U.S. Open Finals allowed lightbulbs to go off in the group participants’ heads. It was apparent on their faces, in the nodding of their heads, and in their comments, where before there were questioning glances and uncertainty in their eyes as grasping Radical Acceptance can be “hard!”. This was the reaction of one of the participants but the others weren’t too convinced of this concept either as I presented the material until I provided the example of The U.S. Open Finals match between Williams and Osaka. After reading this blog post, you too will see the benefit of practicing Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for yourself, as well as see how the Radical Acceptance skill of Distress Tolerance may have helped Serena turn the tides of that controversial match.
NOT AN ATTACK ON SERENA; WE ALL NEED THIS
First things first. This is NOT an attack on Serena Williams. Nor is it an attempt to heighten the stereotype of “the angry Black woman”. I have the utmost respect for Serena Williams and her achievements. I commend her for advocating for herself and pointing out the discrepancy in how male and female tennis players are penalized for their words and behaviors on the court. I was moved by her compassion for Naomi’s moment by having the crowd stop booing to help celebrate Osaka’s victory. For those who say Serena was selfish, I simply disagree. She was entitled to how she felt as it was her character being attacked. Her feelings were/are valid because they are hers. However, as I often tell my patients, feelings aren’t facts. Her inability to regulate her emotions, another DBT skill, caused her to possibly lose the Finals. By asserting this, I take nothing away from Naomi Osaka, as she clearly gave Serena all she had in the competitive match. Using Serena’s behavior during the unfortunate events of the Finals is an opportunity to illustrate that we ALL can benefit from practicing some, or all, of the DBT skills in our lives consistently. Regardless of your education level, your socioeconomic status (SES), your titles, your credentials, your desire to be the GOAT, beat the GOAT, or you are the GOAT, your worldview, your religious or spiritual beliefs, your ethnicity, your gender or gender identity, whether you are 16 or 100, your geographical location, etc, YOU can benefit from DBT.
DIALECTICAL BEHAVIOR THERAPY (DBT) BRIEF OVERVIEW
Briefly, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), was developed by Dr. Linehan in 1991 from research designed to decrease excessive suicidal behavior in persons diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Stay tuned. Don’t stop reading. You don’t have to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder to benefit from the four modules of skills that resulted from Dr. Linehan’s research designed to decrease unhealthy behaviors and improve healthy ones. Tell me you couldn’t benefit from improving your skill level in the following areas: Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, or Distress Tolerance. Mindfulness is having your focused attention in the present without judging the experience and without holding onto anything from that experience. It may sound cooky but it greatly improves attention and concentration; think meditation. Meditation is a form of mindfulness. My mind is focused on one thing, without judgment so that I greatly improve my present experience. Who wouldn’t want that?! Interpersonal Effectiveness allows you to set healthy boundaries to optimize your self-respect, goal achievement, and/or the relationship, as well as improve your ability to get or keep the relationships you want, and get rid of the ones you don’t. Some of us could use a whole year’s worth of classes in this area! Emotion Regulation puts you in control of your emotions and not the other way around; by helping you name, understand them and their function (yes, they have a function), learn how to change them, and act opposite to them.
Distress Tolerance, similar to the Mindfulness skill, focuses on acceptance of self and the present situation, without judgment. Why would we want to accept distress??? The reality is pain is a part of life. To ignore this fact only increases our distress. We cannot change what we do not accept. This is the premise of the Serenity Prayer by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference”. If I do not accept that I am at an unhealthy weight, or my partner is not good for me, or my job is causing my hypertension, or I wear a mask to make others comfortable, etc, how can I create a plan to change? If I do not accept that the chair umpire may be biased and this is a matter to be solved later because I have a match to win now, how can I succeed in my goal?
Radical Acceptance is the means by which we accept things as they are in the moment in order to change them later. To radically accept something is to do so WHOLEHEARTEDLY, with ALL OF YOUR BEING, the WHOLE ENCHILADA, BEING ALL IN, you get the picture, right? It’s important to note that because you accept the present moment does NOT mean that you approve of it. This is where we often get stuck and worsen our circumstances. How might Radical Acceptance have helped Serena get unstuck in her position that the chair umpire attacked her character and owed her an apology? How could she have moved from being stuck in the “it’s not fair. It’s not fair” vortex?
The main focus of Radical Acceptance is utter and complete acceptance of the facts in a situation without giving into behaviors or thoughts that willfully cause the situation to deteriorate. In other words, Serena’s continued attempts to argue the point that was getting her nowhere, which worsened her distress, her (then) present situation, and her ability to cognitively and emotionally readjust to succeed were worsened, not improved by her approach. The goal of DBT overall is to reduce unhealthy behaviors and improve healthy ones, all while not making things worse. As upset as I was along with Serena regarding the chair umpire’s actions, it was clear that her actions made things worse. Her inability to accept her (then) present circumstances due to feeling slighted about past events, “I always have problems here. Why is that?” As well as her comments that male tennis players get to say much worse and are rarely penalized, hindered her from being effective in the moment. She had to accept that the situation was what it was, including any facts about the past and the present, whether she liked them or not. Serena had to accept that even painful situations have a cause, and that life can be meaningful in spite of them. This is what it means to have radical acceptance.
OUCH! SOMETIMES WE CAUSE OUR OWN SUFFERING
As my DBT group skills member noted, “that’s hard!” Yep. It is. But it’s not impossible and with practice it gets easier and easier. Besides, whats the alternative? Failure to accept the reality does not change it. It doesn’t go away because we want it to. As we all know, pain is a part of life. It simply cannot be avoided. Being aware of pain is what informs us that we need to change. Now here comes the really hard part. Take a deep breath and stay with me. While pain is a part of life, we sometimes cause our own suffering by refusing to accept the reality of a situation. Ouch! Yeah. I know. That one was hard to take. But think about how true it is. Have you ever hidden your head in the sand because you felt overwhelmed and didn’t want to deal with something, only to come up for air and find the situation was worse?! Then, you beat yourself up for it because you didn’t handle it before it got to that point? Now the situation requires immediate attention whereas before it may have been triaged as a minor matter.
If you, Serena, and I practiced Radical Acceptance regularly, we would be less angry, sad, depressed, ashamed, resentful, ____________ insert whatever emotion resonates with you. As I mentioned earlier, this is not a knock against Serena Williams, arguably or not, the GOAT of women’s tennis. It is to illustrate the fact that ALL of us can improve our skill in this area but we must first become aware we have deficits and desire to improve them. When you know better, you do better. We MUST put aside the belief that accepting something sooo wrong means giving it or someone a pass, that we do not take the situation seriously or value ourselves, or that we do not intend to change it later. Once Serena advocated for herself and asserted her defense, it could have been addressed later with the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) or other authority, or through a press conference, or a myriad of other ways. We MUST understand that our emotions sometimes get the best of us and prevent us from acting in our best interest. I assume, since I have not spoken to her or anyone in her camp, that Serena was distraught. As a result, she had a difficult time getting those emotions under control to play her best game, which contributed to her losing the U.S. Open Finals.
CHANGE IS POSSIBLE WITH ACCEPTANCE
Now that you know that there are a set of skills that can improve your ability to tolerate distress better, as well as help you regulate your emotions, improve your relationships, and improve your ability to focus better, find a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills group in your area and work on improving you. You can’t stop painful things from happening. You can only change how you respond to them; with practice, you can change your response for the better. Change is possible with acceptance. For further information, visit the www.linehaninstitute.org, www.propsforptsd.com, and follow me on IG, Twitter, & Facebook @DrFeliciaBerry.
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