The Secret to Self-Awareness in Dialectical Behavior Therapy

person taking notes in journalHave you ever found yourself in such an emotional storm that you didn’t feel in control of what you were doing? When we are at our most vulnerable, we are most likely to act in the way that emotions make us want to act. As important as emotions are—they provide us with valuable information, connect us to one another, and more—they sometimes lead us down destructive paths. When this happens, it is often helpful to take a look at the situation to assess what happened, whether it was effective for us, and how we might do something different in the future.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) provides us with an effective approach to look in excruciating detail at events in our lives that have not gone well so that we can better understand how such actions are connected to our emotions and to situations we encounter. It is an empowering approach, one that allows each person to become aware of emotional states in order to have choices—choices about whether to act in the way an emotion makes us want to act or to act differently.

This approach is called a behavioral chain analysis. This is an exercise you can do during a DBT individual session, but it’s also a skill you can practice on your own, outside of session. The DBT skills workbook includes worksheets to guide you along. It starts with a specific description of the problem. What happened? What event prompted you to do this? Even if you are not sure that whatever happened immediately before the problem behavior necessarily caused the problem, take note of it.

It’s important to include an evaluation of how you were doing overall, before a distressing event or feeling came your way. Were you hungry or tired? Were you feeling run down physically? Were you upset about something that had happened the day before?

These underlying vulnerability factors make a difference. Emotional problems can’t be solved with logical solutions, so even if you know what to do, you first have to attend to your emotional needs.

Once you’ve assessed the underlying vulnerability factors, you’ll look at specific events in extreme detail. These are your “links” on the chain, and may include actions, physical sensations, thoughts, beliefs, events, and emotions.

Don’t forget to come up with a strategy to prevent repeating whatever did not work. Start with reducing your vulnerability to negative emotional events. This way, when difficult times come up—as they do for anyone—you will be in your healthiest state from which to respond.

Finally, the chain analysis includes a look at the consequences of what happened. The purpose of this is not to judge—there is no assessment of right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, you are assessing effectiveness. Did the behavior work? Did it serve your short-term and long-term goals? Did it cause any problems? This information can help you then fill in the “missing links,” the effective behaviors that will lead to an outcome more consistent with the life you want.

Don’t forget to come up with a strategy to prevent repeating whatever did not work. Start with reducing your vulnerability to negative emotional events. This way, when difficult times come up—as they do for anyone—you will be in your healthiest state from which to respond.

Also, make sure to repair any damage that was done. This will help to protect and strengthen your relationships. Don’t get stuck in criticizing yourself, though. Repair any disappointments by doing better next time.

While the behavioral chain analysis is a skill that you can apply on your own, it is often helpful to receive coaching in this technique from a therapist trained in dialectical behavior therapy. You can search the directory to find someone who has knowledge and experience in this approach.

After practicing the chain analysis in therapy, you’ll have a skill that you can apply in your life outside of the counseling room. This will help you to better understand yourself, how your brain works, and how to become more in control of your actions while also taking care of yourself and attending to your physical and emotional needs.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW, Dialectical Behavior Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • alana2

    May 14th, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    I am not sure that I would ever feel comfy trying this on my own but with guidance it sounds like it could be a very helpful process.

  • Reese

    May 15th, 2015 at 11:32 AM

    I thought that all therapy would be an in depth look at what has been happening in your life to make you feel the way that you do. Is this not true?

  • Jan H

    July 15th, 2015 at 6:15 PM

    I have done chain analyses before on my own, but was then reviewed with my therapist. EXCELLENT TOOL. Really allows you the chance to examine incidents, behaviors, etc in great detail, which can lead to positive insight and change. No fun to do, but I loved the results.

  • Julie

    January 20th, 2017 at 2:35 AM

    In ABA, applied behavior analysis also known as the science of behavior, we call this the four term contingency. Your current state is considered EO or MO for what is motivating you at the current time since as hunger, thirst, etc. Then there is the A-B-C as the last three parts of the four term contingency. A is for antecedent or what happens before the behavior. B is the behavior of interest. C is consequence or anything that happened after the behavior of interest. The consequence may help determine if you will repeat the same behavior again because of the response or lack there of that you received. Yet all parts of the contingency are important.
    One should also consider the lawfulness of behavior. What previously happened may likely effect the next event.
    Board Certified Behavior Analyst

  • Tara

    January 20th, 2017 at 5:21 PM

    I would not use the word excruciating because it makes a behavioral chain sound aversive. Maybe meticulously or with “a fine tooth comb” would be a better word.

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