DBT Distress Tolerance Skill of Comparisons: How and Why To Use It


As I lay in bed the other night feeling restless and moody, I began to search for what was causing my distress. As an emotionally sensitive person (who is becoming better at managing intense emotions with time and lots of continued DBT practice,) I am still and likely may always be a little more annoyed at little things than the average person; a little more reactive or more easily activated emotionally by things that others may take in stride.

Even when my logical mind knows that the things that are upsetting me are quite minor in the grand scheme of things, I still must remind myself of how true this is.  Practicing the DBT Distress Tolerance skill of Comparisons can be a great help in times like this.

One way the skill can be used is to compare your current situation to those of others who are less fortunate. In this way, you may experience a sense of gratitude that your situation is not worse and a sense of compassion for those who may be suffering even more than you.  For example, you may think of people who have recently been through a natural disaster while you and your family are safe and sound, or someone who is having a difficult time finding a job when you have one that is relatively secure.

Some sensitive people find this way of using the skill difficult, as they then begin to feel guilt and sorrow for the less fortunate. It is okay to experience that briefly, but the goal is to realize how good you have it compared with how things could be.

Another way to use the skill is by comparing your current distress causing situation with a time in your own life when things were worse, and perhaps you didn't have the insight or resources that you have now.  I began practicing this method the other evening.

I was stressing about deadlines and professional commitments even though I had received assurance that I was on-track and on-time. I was also stressing about some creative projects. My muscles were tense, and I had a one track mind, repeatedly playing my worries over and over again.

I decided to begin my skillful intervention with some self-soothing.  I turned on an old CD from Jewel called Spirit, as I remembered it as being a very soothing, lullaby-ish folk album that would put my nerves at ease many years ago.  It delivered on this night as well. What came along with the soothing sounds was a flood of memories, as I noted the release date of 1998 and remembered bits and pieces of what my life looked like then.  

For the most part, it wasn't pretty.  I was young, homeless, and in an abusive marriage.  I thought about that as I lay in an ultra comfy bed, surrounded by my cats and significant other. My life has come a long way.

Those of you who read my first book, Healing From Borderline Personality Disorder may recount one memory that I shared of going though the driving thru of a fast food restaurant just as they were closing, feeling fully humiliated, to ask them if they'd be throwing away any food that I could have.

I'll never forget the kindness of the crew that night that put together a huge bag of food for me. I thought of this in connection with how  I complained the other evening about my "boring" yet abundant, healthy, and delicious leftovers that I had that evening and which allowed me to go to sleep with a full belly.

I realized how much better off I am now. It's not to say that I don't ever have the right to be irritated or upset by things, but using the DBT Comparison skill helps me put these concerns into perspective and take the emotional edge off of my reaction.

Your examples don't have to be as extreme as mine. Perhaps they are even more extreme. My hope is that in practicing this skill the next time you feel distressed, you may experience what I did when I practiced: a sense of renewed gratitude and a lessening of feelings of distress.

Thanks for reading.
More soon.

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