Often times while experiencing a distressing situation, people cause themselves undue suffering via rumination and self-deprecation. We add to the discomfort of the moment by reliving past pain, imagining future pain, and / or loathing the pain of the present. Rather than moving through the discomfort of the current moment, we drag ALL the pain of our lives into that moment as well. We sit with, stew in it, stagnate and wallow in all of the pain we have ever experienced like this, and then wonder why things are not getting better.
Well I’m sorry to break it to you my dear, but you can’t keep dancing with the devil and then wonder why you’re still in hell. The fact is we sow the seeds of our future hells or happiness by the way we open or close our minds. The essence of insanity is repeating the same behaviors and expecting a different result. Now, this adage may be tired and often misunderstood, but I believe that there is a ring of truth which lends to its persistence.
DBT teaches that there are four ways to react to any problem: Tolerate it, make yourself feel better about it, solve it, or stay miserable. Now obviously staying miserable is a bad solution, but DBT acknowledges that a bad solution is a solution and categorizes it as such even though it is ineffective and probably destructive. However, the fact remains that many clients and readers do this regularly. THIS is the reaction I was talking about in the beginning; “dancing with the devil”. All of us have learned maladaptive coping behaviors – “bad solutions”. These are things we do to feel better. Drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex, temper tantrums, isolating, aggressions, over or under eating, self – harm, all of these things help us feel better in the moment so that we can tolerate the immediate distress of the situation. However, this creates a particularly vicious variety of catch 22, because the things we do to make us feel immediately better have a tendency to multiply and intensify our problems. The relief is extremely transient, and we are left even more vulnerable, even more distressed, and – more often than not – with even more problems after the effect wears off. The tricky part of the problem is that these behaviors, these solutions, work to some extent and that is why we continue to use them. The point of this article, and of DBT at large, is to SOLVE THE PROBEM by teaching ourselves to not choose the bad solution (not stay miserable and not make it worse) by exploring other skills and options for dealing with problems.
One of the most useful skills that one can acquire early on is “One Thing in the Moment”. This particular skill is actually one part of a larger skillset, but is equally useful as a standalone response and is particularly effective at combatting the kind of catastrophizing and rumination mentioned at the beginning of this post. It’s super simple. You just do one thing in the moment. If you do it correctly, by immersing yourself totally and fully in one single activity you can actually divert your brain’s ability to worry about everything else. This is called “one-mindfully”. And literally anything can be done one-mindfully. In fact, I believe everything should be done one-mindfully.
What does that mean, exactly? It means putting all of your focus into the one thing you’re doing each moment. It means never multi – tasking, because multitasking is ineffective. It splits your mind, your concentration, and your resolve, making you more vulnerable to rumination, anxiety, and emotional pain. Abe Lincoln and God herself agree, “A house divided cannot stand”.
Take doing the dishes for example. If one were to do the dishes mindfully, they would focus all of their attention on just and only doing the dishes. Think of it like focusing all of your senses onto the task at hand. So hear the water sloshing and running. Feel the slipperiness of the soap and the fizzle of the bubbles; watch them pop. Smell the scent of the soap. Really hone in on each dish as it goes into and comes out of the sink. Really, purposefully pay attention to the details, and do it with your whole mind. Engaging the senses in this way is one of the easiest and most effective skills taught in DBT for both distress tolerance and emotion regulation. Be entirely in to doing the dishes, and I guarantee you’ll have little time to fret about anything else in that moment. Notice, though, that I say “little time.” Being fully mindful in this manner is easy to do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy to maintain – especially in the beginning. So if you happen to lose focus – and you likely will – or you notice your thoughts trailing somewhere else just gently lead them back to the task at hand and return to the moment.
Obviously the dishes are just one example of how this skill can be applied in daily life. And if you are in the midst of a crisis or an episode, the dishes are likely the very last thing on your mind. However, there are two points I would make.
Firstly, as I’ve already stated, anything can be done one mindfully. What do you need to do first, right now, in this exact moment? Do that one thing in the moment. Focus on it fully, and work through to completion. Then you can move on to the next first thing, and the next – one at a time – until all of the things that would normally overwhelm you are completed. These may be things as mundane as getting out of bed, then taking a shower, then getting dressed for the day, then handling your daily tasks one at a time or as distressing as packing your things, then leaving the house, then finding a safe place to stay for the night, then finding a safe place to stay more permanently. All of these qualify as one thing in the moment. Even resolving an argument in a way that is safe and effective for you can be done one mindfully – by focusing all your attention on the present moment (not drudging up past insults, hurts or pain and not fretting about the possible future effects).
Secondly, when one is experiencing an episode, completing daily tasks can seem extremely daunting. You may feel like you have no energy to do the dishes, do the laundry, or even shower. But, as many of you know, neglecting these routine tasks only adds to the distress you feel. When any of these are allowed go to unchecked for prolonged periods of time, they become even more daunting and difficult to confront. And on top the overwhelming sense of being… well, overwhelmed, we also tend to start berating ourselves for allowing things to pile up. Neither of these serves your wellbeing. I understand completely exactly how taxing, onerous, and exhausting it can be trying to accomplish just one daily task when you feel this way. I do. But certain things still have to be done. And often, at least for me, I feel better about myself and my situation if I can complete something to make my environment more livable. So I do the dishes as if the dishes are the only thing in the world that I have to do. And in that moment they are, because I am doing one thing in the moment. Doing one thing in the moment takes a laundry list of chores and tasks and worries, and instead gives you one simple assignment – “one thing in the moment”.