What I learned from Dr. Marsha Linehan: To change ourselves, we have to accept ourselves.

To change ourselves, we first have to accept ourselves


This week I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend a 2-day training workshop by one of my all-time favourite psychologists and gurus, Dr. Marsha Linehan. Marsha is a pretty remarkable woman. In case you don’t know who she is, she is the pioneer and founder of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). DBT is all about building a life worth living and reducing suffering. It aims to find the synthesis of opposites. It embraces the idea that real change is possible, but that to create real change we first need to find the synthesis between acceptance and change. DBT affirms that everything is always changing, that truth evolves over time, and that everything is connected, ultimately. To change ourselves, we first have to accept ourselves; and likewise, to help change others, we first have to accept them!

Attending the workshop and meeting Marsha was such an amazing opportunity for me as a psychologist. A highlight was when she signed my copy of her DBT Skills Training Manual. I didn’t say much to her, just a simple “thank you”, to express my gratitude. She stopped writing to turn and smile and say, “You’re welcome”. It was definitely a major career highlight and fan-girl moment for me!

Sit back and let your mind figure it out.


One of the first things I took down in my 20+ pages of written notes was something Marsha said right at the beginning of day one: “sit back and let your mind figure it out”. She was referring to being in a counselling session with a client, and giving yourself the permission to pause and reflect before responding. One of the biggest mistakes we make when communicating with others is that we do not listen to understand, we listen to reply. Marsha was saying that therapists should allow themselves the time to tap into their ability to figure things out first, to trust and to listen to their intuition. I liked that idea quite a lot, and I don’t think it just applies to therapists. So often, we get caught up in the chaos of the moment, processing a million things at once, the voice of our intuition is drowned out and we forget to sit back and figure it all out. So that was a major epiphany for me.

There can be more that can be known than what can be known from the senses


At end of day one, Marsha talked a little bit about her own personal journey and about spirituality… Marsha defines herself as a “Catholic Zen Master”, whatever that even means! I liked that she spoke about spirituality, because it’s often completely ignored by other prominent psychologists in the field. Spirituality is a really important area of life and one of my key research interests. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the role of spirituality in facilitating vicarious resilience in therapists and therapists in training. Marsha said, “there can be more that can be known than what can be known from the senses”, and that experiencing a sense of connection and “oneness” would lead to a sense of freedom and contentment. Marsha emphasised that freedom beats joy. Joy, realistically, is a temporarily emotion, while contentment and freedom can be ongoing. Marsha suggested using Mindfulness as the pathway toward finding more of these moments of oneness and connection with ourselves, and the world around us.Everything is being impacted by everything it’s connected to.


Marsha also talked about how change is transactional, and that everything is being impacted by everything it’s connected to. We often assume that all behaviour is chosen and deliberate and often it is simply automatic. Many problem behaviours are a result of a causal pattern or chain. Just stop for a minute and think about that…. It completely obliterates the concept of blame. If all behaviour is caused, how can we ever blame anyone for anything? We can’t! However, independent of what caused the problem, we do have to solve it! One way to do that is to give up judgment and the idea of “good and bad” and instead evaluate the consequences of behaviour – focus on what is effective and what works! Remember that there have to be consequences to behaviour for people to change. Being non-judgmental doesn’t mean you have to like or approve of it, either, it just means there’s a difference between thoughts and observations.

We are always learning and we are always doing the best we can (accept yourself).... AND, we can always do better (change yourself)!


The most important (and validating) reflection I walked away with from the 2-day workshop was that even Marsha (the guru herself) makes mistakes. During the workshop they showed a few videos of Marsha’s therapy sessions and it was extremely normalising to see that she wasn’t “the perfect therapist”. There is no such thing. If the woman who developed DBT and wrote multiple books and manuals on it can stuff it up (and admit to stuffing it up) then it’s most certainly ok for me to stuff it up. It all comes back to this very important dialectic: We are always learning and we are always doing the best we can (accept yourself)…. AND, we can always do better (change yourself)!


Inside Out: How to Validate Your Feelings.

In my last post, I spoke about stories, and how we all have sets of stories that form our sense of identity. The social researcher and best-selling author, Brené Brown, also likes to talk about stories. She reckons it takes courage to own your story.

when we deny the story

It takes more courage to be vulnerable and own your story, than it does to hide away in shame. It involves standing in your truth, examining your story, making necessary changes, and sometimes it involves sitting with discomfort and pain.

Last night, I watched the Disney Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’ for the first time. It was an awesome film! It highlighted the importance of validating your own (and others’) feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, sad, painful or awkward they may be. All of our feelings serve a purpose. We can’t always be “joyful”, and that’s ok! Forcing yourself to be positive and happy in response to events or situations that incite feelings of sadness is likely to result in more sadness, anger, frustration and ultimately, denial of your emotions.

In dialectical behaviour therapy, when we talk about regulating emotions, we firstly educate clients on getting to know their primary emotions. People who have difficulty regulating their emotions have usually experienced some form of invalidation in their life. That is, someone important in the person’s life has potentially criticised them, disapproved of them, invalidated their feelings, invalidated their story, or invalidated how they see the world. In the film, there are five primary emotions – joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger. Sometimes people add in a sixth: surprise. Primary emotions are the first emotion a person feels consequent to an event. These primary emotions are often then masked by secondary emotions. The interesting thing about secondary emotions is that they are emotions we have in response to a primary emotion not being recognised or expressed. So, when we, or others, invalidate our primary feelings by denying them, judging them, criticising them or shaming them, we then move on to secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are longer lasting and profoundly more intense. For example, say you were a child and you felt sad and your primary caregiver consistently got angry with you for being sad, you may have then started to judge yourself for being sad. A story was created. The story isn’t necessarily true or valid, but the story continues on into adulthood. The story tells you that it’s not okay to be sad. So you mask the sadness, and you also try anything to escape the intensity and discomfort of the secondary feeling. Perhaps you start drinking, gambling, self-harming… it’s a bullshit story, but it sticks.

Oftentimes, people deny that sadness serves a purpose. You see people’s social media feeds these days, and it’s like a highlights reel of their life. “Be positive!” “Smile!” “Be happy!” people say in response to someone who is slouching their shoulders or looking glum. The result is a culture where we are taught that it’s not ok to be angry, sad or disgusted. “Stop being so negative!” people say, or “Cheer up!” When we respond to sadness with joy, we create a culture of invalidation, and it’s so unhealthy!

Of course, that’s not to say that being clinically depressed is ok or normal, and that we should just validate this profound feeling of sadness and move on. No, that’s not what it’s about. But why can’t we sit with them alongside their sadness for a little while? Why can’t we feel their feelings, and in turn allow them to feel their feelings too? Yes, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes even painful… but it’s also an appropriate and healthy human response.

What’s to say we can’t accept them for where they are right now, and still strive to work toward change and improvement? What’s to say that we can’t validate a person’s sadness, but also help them to move on to a place of joy? It’s not a contradiction; it’s the middle ground. And doesn’t have to be black and white. Why should it be? Life isn’t black or white; it’s all shades of grey.

So, how about instead of conforming to a culture of invalidation and shame we embrace all of our feelings? ‘Cos they all serve a purpose.