At my counseling center, we teach people skills to help overcome life-hindering issues, from psychological conditions to addictions. One of the skills we find extremely effective is dialectical behavioral therapy or DBT. DBT was developed by someone from my part of the country – the Pacific Northwest – Dr. Marsha Linehan, professor of psychology and adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Seattle’s University of Washington.[i]
Dialectical behavioral therapy can sound very technical, very psycho-babble, to those first arriving for treatment. Yet, once people understand its concepts and apply them to their lives, the response from ordinary, struggling, hopeful people is amazingly positive. DBT provides them practical, in-the-moment tools for getting through each day.
People can be propelled into a therapeutic setting out of a profound sense of overwhelming distress. One of the core concepts of DBT is distress tolerance. In simple terms, when something bad happens, fixating on how bad it is can often make it worse. When you can’t really change the bad that is happening, the only thing you can change is how you react. Distress tolerance teaches people to accept and find ways to cope with what causes them distress instead of unhealthy avoidance.
As our brains sometimes link odd pieces together, I thought of DBT and distress tolerance the other day when I heard about a study on childhood chores. Done a couple of years ago, this study found that, while 82% of polled adults said they had regular chores growing up, the inverse, only 28% said they required their own children to do chores.[ii] For whatever reason – busy lives or aversion to whining or a fervent commitment not to put their own kids through what they went through – parents were jettisoning the chore requirement.
As I thought about that study, I realized doing chores is where I first came to grips with the concept of distress tolerance. I considered chores to be a bad thing, yet they were unavoidable, unless I wanted even more bad things to happen. I remember eye-rolling and deep sighing. I remember muttering under my breath how unfair life was because I had to do whatever. And, when my parents were around, my muttering became full-blown internal, negative dialogue. I envisioned missing out on all manner of fun activities because of The Chore. I pre-calculated endless amounts of time needed to accomplish whatever it was. Then, when I finally started The Chore, I fought it tooth-and-nail, angry and resentful. What was so terrible? Things like cleaning my room, loading the dishwasher, mowing the lawn, doing my homework before television or playing with friends, writing thank-you letters to relatives. Looking back, the only thing I still resent is the amount of time I wasted being resentful.
Most people aren’t familiar with the word dialectical. The definitions in Merriam-Webster are a chore to get through but one of its definitions is “the dialectical tension or opposition between two interacting forces or elements.”[iii] I think Dr. Linehan best explained her reasoning in using this word for her therapy when she said, “There is a dialectic tension between accepting reality and changing reality, and you really need to have both of those to go forward.”[iv] I didn’t realize it back then but, by accepting the reality of chores, I was actually working to change my reality going forward. Learning to do chores strengthened my resiliency muscles, once I stopped whining and found positives, even in scooping the yard.
Maybe more parents should reconsider the childhood chores-thing, for a very adult reason. In the Boston Globe article about this study, Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult,”[v] said a childhood with no chores ‘deprives them of the satisfaction of applying their effort to a task and accomplishing it.”[vi] In the adult world, believing you have the ability to accomplish something difficult is anything but childish.
Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 35 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.