I would like to share with you an analogy I use to explain survival skills and the need for skill training. Although I wrote this analogy over 20 years ago, before I had ever heard about DBT, I find that it is still very helpful today and is very compatible with my DBT work. I use it to explain the need for skill training both to my clients and to the therapists I train. I hope it will help you too.
Purdue Bay Analogy
Several years ago I spent some time in Alaska. While I was there I went to Purdue Bay, which is the start of the Alaska pipeline and pretty much the top of the world. In fact, even though I was there in August, I was able to see the polar ice cap. Well, as you might imagine, it’s very cold in Purdue Bay. In fact, there are signals next to each door and, if a red light is showing, you can’t go outside at all because you would freeze to death within a matter of minutes.
So, now imagine you grew up in Purdue Bay. Even on the days when it was safe to go outside, you would need to always wear a very heavy coat, buttoned up all the way to your chin. Without your coat, you wouldn’t survive the cold. In fact, it’s so normal for you to wear a heavy coat buttoned up like that, that after a while you might even forget that you’re wearing it. It becomes like a second skin.
Now imagine that later on in life you moved to North Carolina. Since you still have your heavy coat on, you might get very hot and uncomfortable. You might even notice that other people are looking at you funny, but you might not know why. Eventually, you might notice, or someone might point out to you, that you have on your heavy winter coat. You might look around and notice that other people aren’t wearing heavy coats. Even though you’re very hot and uncomfortable, and even if you now know that you feel that way because you’re wearing a heavy coat, you might not be able to take it off. Even the thought of taking it off might be extremely frightening for since you had learned that without your heavy coat you would die.
After living in North Carolina for a while, and possibly with the support of friends or a therapist or other people who are also wearing heavy coats, you might decide to take a big risk and open one of your buttons. After seeing that you’re still safe, you might eventually open up some more buttons. Eventually, you might even take off your coat and carry it on your arm so that you can have it nearby in case you ever need it. After some time passes, you might realize that although you’re more comfortable now that you no longer have your coat on, carrying it can be tiresome, especially since you have discovered that you really don’t need it. So, you might decide to leave your heavy winter coat in the closet. You don’t ever have to throw your coat away. It’s a good coat and if you ever go back to Alaska, or if we ever experience another ice age, you might need it. But, you no longer have to have it with you all the time.
Sometimes, while in North Carolina, you might see a red light and you might feel scared and anxious and not know why. You might have an urge to run home, put on your coat and button it all the way up. The red light is a trigger. It reminds you of the danger you were in while living in Purdue Bay. You might have triggers throughout your life and sometimes you might even put your coat back on for a little while until you feel safe again. That’s okay. But, the more you recognize the triggers, the better able you will be to tell yourself, “I feel scared right now because the red light reminds me of my past danger, but right now I am safe. I can look around and remind myself that I’m in North Carolina. I can remember to breathe and soon I’ll feel safe again.”
There is something else you might notice about North Carolina. Sometimes it gets chilly and people wear sweaters. You might feel dumb because everyone around you seems to already know about and have sweaters. Here you come from a cold climate and yet you don’t have any sweaters or even know how to go about buying one. But that’s not dumb. Why should you already know about sweaters? In Purdue Bay, Alaska, it’s too cold for a sweater to ever keep you warm enough. When you live in extreme temperatures, you learn extreme measures to cope with the cold.
Similarly, when you grow up with or invalidation, or with a great deal of emotional dysregulation, you know how to deal with extreme stress and fear, for example by dissociating or cutting yourself or chronic suicidal ideation or extreme emotional expression. But, because less extreme measures would do you no good in your childhood, you may never have learned skills to deal with smaller or less dangerous upsets. Also, since these things probably happened when you were young and before you developed your more advanced mental capabilities, your age of development would have limited the survival skills available to you.
So, part of the reason to do skills training is to expand the repertoire of skills available to you now that you are at a more advanced developmental level and now that you have the need for survival skills for coping with stresses and stresses that are less severe than those you may have grown up with.
Some of my clients dealt much better with September 11th and the Washington D.C. area snipers than the general population. They have the skills to deal with severe stress. What they need to learn are the skills to deal with more ordinary stresses. Perhaps like them, you, or someone you know, would also benefit from learning about sweaters.
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