Another fascinating insight from DBT founder Marsha Linehan

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There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think, “Thank goodness for Marsha Linehan,” the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). She has taught us so many ways to increase skillful behavior.

It happened again recently while I was attending the Latin American Conference on DBT in Argentina.

After missing her international flight from Seattle due to weather, her presentation was rescheduled for 8 a.m. the following day. I value hearing Marsha speak, but I didn’t make it to the conference venue that early. When I did arrive, I learned she had taught a new skill.

My disappointment turned to anxiety when the conference coordinator asked me to sit with Marsha while he took care of some things; I wondered, “Does she knows I missed her talk?”

After a quick kiss on each cheek (we were in Argentina, after all), Marsha moved right in: “So, Lucene what did you think of my talk?”

Oh snap! Now what? What happens if you lie to the developer queen of DBT? In my mind, I ran through the pros and cons of lying and decided instead to be radically genuine: “Marsha, I missed your talk. I really needed the extra sleep. I am sorry I missed it though, because I hear you taught a new skill.”

Marsha let me off the hook: “I support sleep”, she said. “You need it to function effectively.”

Marsha then relayed the following story: After missing her connecting flight she was forced to sleep on the floor at the airport.

She told me she figured out a skill that helps you get to sleep. As someone who struggles with sleep when I travel, I was all ears.  She described the skill as a combination of mindful breathing and counting. Breathe in, count one, breath out count two, and continue until you fall asleep.

Incredulous, I complain: “Marsha, that’s not a new skill; that’s counting sheep.”

“Oh no,” she drawled, “This is different. You breathe and count mindfully and when your mind wanders, don’t go back to one; just pick up where  you left off and continue until you fall asleep.”

I still thought it sounded a lot like counting sheep.

That night, in my strange Argentine hotel room, I had trouble falling asleep. Begrudgingly, I used the strategy… and it worked. Somehow the combination of mindful breathing and not having to start back at one when I got off track was effective for me.

I shared this story with a colleague. He told me he had discovered the same method for falling asleep through yoga. He suggested that the real difference between counting sheep and Marsha’s method is the absence of self-judgment.

If you lose count and have to start over at one, it feels like a penalty, he said. Even though it’s actually a sign that you’re starting to doze off, some small corner of your brain is trying to stay more alert so you don’t have to go all the way back to one again.

The small difference of picking up wherever you think you left off is like giving yourself permission to be imperfect.

This made sense to me. Marsha’s method is fundamentally mindful, non-judgmental breathing and counting. It’s so beautifully DBT. This must be, I think, exactly what Marsha was going for. My conclusion: Marsha Linehan is a genius (but you already knew that).


About the Author:

Dr. Lucene Wisniewski is an internationally recognized leader in eating disorder treatment and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, with more than 25 years of clinical and training experience. She may be reached for consultation through the "contact" page on this website.