Communication Styles and Mental Health

Passive Communication
Passive people often don’t communicate verbally. They tend to bottle up their emotions instead of expressing them, perhaps out of fear of hurting others or making them uncomfortable, or maybe because they don’t believe their feelings or opinions matter as much as those of others. People with a passive communication style usually fear confrontation and believe that voicing their opinions, beliefs, or emotions will cause conflict. Their goal is usually to keep the peace and not rock the boat, so they sit back and say little.

Aggressive Communication
Aggressive communicators attempt to control others. They’re concerned with getting their own way, regardless of the cost to others. Aggressive people are direct, but in a forceful, demanding, and perhaps even vicious way. They tend to leave others feeling resentful, hurt, and afraid. They might get what they want, but it’s usually at the expense of others, and sometimes at their own expense, as they may later feel guilty, regretful, or ashamed because of how they behaved.

Passive-Aggressive Communication
Like passive communicators, those who have a passive-aggressive style fear confrontation and don’t express themselves directly. However, because of their aggressive tendencies, their goal is to get their way, but they tend to use indirect techniques that more subtly express their emotions, such as sarcasm, the silent treatment, or saying they’ll do something for others but then “forgetting.”

Assertive Communication
Assertive people express their wishes, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a direct and honest way that’s respectful both of themselves and of others. They attempt to get their own needs met but also try to meet the needs of others as much as possible. They listen and negotiate, so others often choose to cooperate with them because they’re also getting something out of the interaction. Others tend to respect and value assertive communicators because this communication style makes them feel respected and valued.

Sources: DBT Made Simple

Watch Your Emotions

People often try to avoid their emotions because they find them too painful. When you haven’t learned how to regulate your emotions you are in a lot of pain, and you don’t have the skills to manage and tolerate your emotions. You can use the acronym WATCH to help summarize the skills that will help them reduce their avoidance of emotions and improve their ability to manage emotions:

Watch: Watch your emotions. Mentally note your experience of an emotion, acknowledging how it feels physically, the thoughts, memories, or images that accompany it, and so on.

Avoid acting: Don’t act immediately. Remember that it’s just an emotion, not a fact, and that you don’t necessarily need to do anything about it.

Think: Think of your emotion as a wave. Remember that it will recede naturally if you don’t try to push it away.

Choose: Choose to let yourself experience the emotion. Remind yourself that not avoiding the emotion is in your best interests and will help you work toward your long-term goals.

Helpers: Remember that emotions are helpers. They all serve a purpose and arise to tell you something important. Let them do their job!

Sources: DBT Made Simple

Three Levels of Self-Validation

Acknowledging: The most basic level of self-validation is simply acknowledging the presence of the emotion rather than judging it; for example, telling yourself, I feel unhappy. Just acknowledging or naming the emotion and putting a period on the end of the sentence rather than going down the road of judging it validates the emotion.

Allowing: The second level of self-validation is allowing, which is essentially giving yourself permission to feel the feeling; for example, telling yourself, It’s okay that I feel unhappy. This takes not judging the feeling one step further, affirming that it’s okay to feel this way. This doesn’t mean liking the feeling or wanting it to hang around; it just means acknowledging that you’re allowed to feel the emotion.

Understanding: The highest (and hardest) level of self-validation is understanding. This level, which goes beyond not judging the emotion and saying it’s okay to feel it, involves having an understanding of it; for example, It makes sense that I feel unhappy, given the difficulties I have managing my emotions and the chaos this causes in my relationships and my life.

Source: DBT Made Simple

Crisis Prevention: Experience Intense Sensations

Experience Intense Sensations

Sometimes generating intense physical sensations can distract the mind from painful emotions. This helps explain why many people resort to cutting or hurting themselves in other ways: because it can actually help them feel better temporarily. Obviously, the key here is to help identify intense sensations that aren’t harmful. Think about physical sensations you can generate that might take your mind off a crisis. For people who engage in self-harm, try holding an ice cube in one hand. This can cause physical pain if held long enough, and the sensation is intense. For some people, this can take the place of self-harming behaviors. Here are some examples of other things you might do to get your mind off a crisis:

  • Take a hot or cold bath or shower.
  • Keep a rubber band on one wrist and snap it—not so hard that it causes a lot of physical pain, but hard enough to generate a sensation that will temporarily occupy the mind.
  • Chew on crushed ice or frozen fruit.
  • Go for a walk in cold or hot weather.
  • Lie in the hot sun (with sunscreen on!).

Again, add whatever intense sensations you can think of to your list of activities to help survive a crisis.

Sources: DBT Made Simple

Austen Riggs Center Psychiatric Hospital

The Austen Riggs Center is an open psychiatric hospital and treatment program that promotes resilience and self-direction in adults (18+) with complex psychiatric problems. They specialize in the long-term treatment of psychiatric disorders with intensive psychodynamic psychotherapy and a full range of psychiatric services, offered in a completely voluntary continuum of care that includes inpatient, residential, and day treatment programs.

They treat the individual, not the diagnosis. Diagnostic labels cannot capture the essence of an individual’s struggles or strengths, and they often obscure what people have in common. Many of their patients have multiple diagnoses, and many have been identified as “treatment resistant” in the past. Often they seek psychiatric treatment at Riggs because they need a different approach, and many opt to stay in our long-term residential treatment program following an initial evaluation and treatment period.

All patients have intensive psychodynamic psychotherapy four times a week with a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. The goal is to help the person expand their capacity for work, play, and love by fostering improved self-esteem and resilience, and by helping them acknowledge and come to terms with whatever has previously blocked their development.

Recognizing the importance of the social context, they offer in-depth family evaluation, support for family members, and family therapy, as well as a robust Therapeutic Community Program in which patients can develop supportive peer relationships and learn about themselves with others. They offer opportunities for participation in patient government, in social and recreational activities, in reflective process groups, and in health and wellness activities such as meditation and yoga.

The Erikson Institute for Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center studies individuals in their social contexts through research, training, education, and outreach programs in the local community and beyond. Part of that offering includes an Adult Psychoanalytic Training Program and Fellowship in Hospital-Based Psychotherapy for psychiatrists and psychologists. The program takes a systems perspective, emphasizing cultural and familial contexts, as well as individual development across the lifespan.

The basic ingredients essential to fulfilling the Center’s mission are:

  • Treatment organized around an intensive individual therapeutic relationship, focusing on the patient’s recognition and tolerance of experiences of conflict and pain, leading to the development of a sense of perspective on the illness
  • An open therapeutic community involving all staff and patients
  • A careful assessment phase, including psychological testing
  • A range of programs, geared to individual levels of capability and need
  • Continuous treatment by the same multidisciplinary team as patients move between programs
  • Psychopharmacologic treatment
  • Group work, substance use treatment, family treatment and help with reintegration into the external community
  • A broad activities program offering creative expression, with patients in the role of student, and in a “treatment free zone”
  • Ongoing staff training, research and education to further the primary clinical task
  • Recruitment and retention of quality staff


In an increasingly complex and fragmented world, the dignity of the individual, the importance of human relationships and the centrality of a sense of community are more difficult to find. The focus and traditions of the Austen Riggs Center orient the staff to help troubled patients meet these and other rapidly changing psychological challenges of contemporary society. We will continually build on our distinguished past, helping our patients develop personal competence in a completely open setting that emphasizes the individual’s capacity to face and take responsibility for his or her life—past, present, and future. We nurture our patients’ strengths, foster their social functioning and encourage family collaboration. Through our research and training programs, we educate professionals in our psychodynamic perspective, applying this learning to a broad range of psychosocial problems. Finally, in this time of diminishing mental health benefits, we will continue to develop cost-effective treatment settings that focus on individual psychotherapy, community living and that attend to resource limitations as both reality to deal with and metaphor for other limits and losses.


  • Affirmation of the dignity and responsibility of the individual
  • Recognition, appreciation and enhancement of individual strengths
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Respect for individual differences
  • Centrality of the psychotherapeutic relationship
  • Learning opportunities in a community of differentiated voices
  • Importance of examined living
  • Attention to the conflict between individual choice and the requirements of a community
  • Openness to innovation and creativity
  • Open setting to promote personal responsibility and freedom of choice in treatment
  • Importance of recognizing and preserving multiple roles, including those of student and community member
  • Provision of treatment based on quality and outcome, not profit

Located in the small New England town of Stockbridge, MA, three hours from New York City, two hours from Boston, and one hour from Albany, NY, the Austen Riggs Center is fully licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Health and accredited by the Joint Commission.

Distress Tolerance Skills: Reframe

Reframing refers to changing one’s perspective about something—in other words, helping make lemons out of lemonade or helping to see the silver lining. Of course a therapist, has to be careful that in doing so they don’t invalidate patients or minimize their worries. Here’s an example:

Patient: I can’t believe that I’ve been in therapy and doing all of this work for almost two years, and I’ve started bingeing again. What’s wrong with me that I can’t stop? I know how unhealthy it is, and I don’t want to gain weight again!

Therapist: Yes, you’re struggling, Anna, but it makes sense given all of the stressors in your life right now (validation). If this was two years ago, how do you think you’d be coping with everything that’s going on?

Patient: Well I’d probably be in the hospital already. At the very least, I’d be feeling suicidal and wouldn’t be functioning very well.

Therapist: Right. So even though you’ve gone back to an unhealthy behavior, you’re not where you were two years ago. In fact, you’re coping quite a bit better than you were back then, right?

Patient: Yeah, I guess you’re right.

There are many different ways to reframe. The above dialogue is an example of a patient comparing herself now to how she was in the past, at a time when she wasn’t coping as well. This can often help patients acknowledge the changes they’ve made, even though they may still be struggling.

The way patients talk to themselves about what’s happening in their lives can also change the way they think and feel about things. Often, especially when depression and anxiety are a problem, people tend to get fixated on the negatives. They focus on how bad the situation is and catastrophize or think about the worst possible thing that could happen. If you can change how you think about the situation, you’ll find that it’s more bearable than first imagined and you will be more likely to get through it without engaging in behaviors that could make it worse.

To help with self-talk, you should write out coping statements to use when you get into situations that you’re struggling with and that trigger intense emotions. That way you won’t make it worse with self-talk and can actually help yourself cope more effectively. Here are some examples:

  • I can get through this.
  • The emotions are intense and uncomfortable, but I know they won’t hurt me.
  • This pain won’t last forever.

Sources: DBT Made Simple by Sheri Van Dijk

Three Styles of Thinking in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy)

Three Styles of Thinking in DBT

Marsha Linehan outlines three states of mind, or ways we have of thinking about things: the reasoning self, the emotional self, and the wise self.

The Reasoning Self:

The reasoning self: the part of ourselves that we use when we’re thinking logically or reasoning something out. When we use this part of ourselves, there are few or no emotions involved. If there are emotions present, they don’t significantly influence how we behave. Rather, the focus is on thinking logically about something: organizing your day at work, leaving instructions for the babysitter, deciding whether you should drive or take the subway to work, taking minutes at a meeting, and so on. It may take a while and you may need to help, but you can usually come up with at least one example.

The Emotional Self:

Usually we have more difficulties coming up with examples of times when we’ve acted from their emotional self—the part that often gets us into trouble, as our behaviors are controlled by the emotion we’re feeling in the moment. Some general examples, such as feeling angry and lashing out at someone, feeling anxious and avoiding whatever is causing the anxiety, or feeling depressed and withdrawing and isolating. Try to come up with some examples of your own: When have you acted from your emotional self? Usually you can relate to this thinking style and examples come rather easily.

The Wise Self:

The difficulty often lies in being able to see that you have a wise self, which is the combination of the reasoning self, the emotional self, and intuition.  In other words, we feel our emotions and are still able to think straight, and we weigh the consequences of our actions and choose to act in a way that’s in our best interests in the long run, even if that means behaving in a way that’s quite difficult. Again, some examples: You’re having an argument with your partner, and instead of saying something hurtful that comes to mind, you bite your tongue because you know you’ll regret it later. You have an urge to drink, but part of you recognizes this as an ineffective way of coping, so you call your mother or go to an AA meeting instead.

It’s also important to understand that acting from your wise self doesn’t necessarily entail a humongous achievement. Some smaller examples: You wake up in the morning and feel down; it’s cold, it’s still dark outside, and your first impulse is to call in sick. But instead you roll over, turn off the alarm, and get out of bed. This is your wise self. Or say it’s 5:00 p.m., your “partner’s going to be home from work soon, and you promised you would cook dinner, but you’re exhausted and don’t feel like it. Yet you do it anyway. This is your wise self.

Sometimes you’ll say something like, “But I have to go to work because I have to pay the bills; that’s not acting wisely.  But the truth is, no one has to go to work, we choose to go to work. We could choose to not go and the bills wouldn’t get paid. When you make a choice to get out of bed and go to work, that choice comes from your wise self. You weighed the consequences and decided what would be more effective in the long run, even though it wasn’t necessarily the easy thing to do.

Sources: DBT Made Simple by Sheri Van Dijk

Validation in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

This is the main dialectic in DBT: balancing pushing clients to make changes in life while at the same time accepting the way they are and the life they’re leading, as well as encouraging them to accept themselves. If the therapist pushes too hard for change and doesn’t focus enough on acceptance, the client will feel invalidated and will be unable to work effectively in therapy. But too much acceptance and not enough push for change will create a sense of hopelessness, which will also result in an inability to work effectively in therapy.

Linehan (1997) outlines six different levels of validation:

Listening and observing: The therapist actively tries to understand what the client is saying, feeling, and doing, demonstrating genuine interest in her and actively working to get to know her. This entails paying close attention to both verbal and nonverbal communication and remaining fully present.

Accurate reflection: The therapist accurately and nonjudgmentally reflects back the feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and so on expressed by the client. At this level, the therapist is sufficiently in tune with the client to identify her perspective accurately.

Articulating the unverbalized: The therapist communicates to the client that she understands the client’s experiences and responses that haven’t been stated directly. In other words, the therapist interprets the client’s behavior to determine what the client feels or thinks based on her knowledge of events. The therapist picks up on emotions and thoughts the client hasn’t expressed through observation and speculation based on her knowledge of the client. This type of validation can be very powerful because, while clients often observe themselves accurately, they can also invalidate themselves and discount their own perceptions because of the mistrust fostered in them by their environment.

Validating in terms of sufficient (but not necessarily valid) causes: The therapist validates client behavior in relation to its causes, communicating to the client that her feelings, thoughts, and behaviors make sense in the context of her current and past life experience and her physiology (e.g., biological illness). This level of validation goes against the belief of many clients that they should be different in some way (for example, “I should be able to manage my emotions better”)”

Validating as reasonable in the moment: The therapist communicates that the client’s behavior is understandable and effective given the current situation, typical biological functioning, and life goals. It’s important for the therapist to find something in the response that’s valid, even if it’s only a small part of the response (for example, letting a client know that it’s understandable she would resort to cutting herself because it provides temporary relief, even though it doesn’t help her reach her long-term goals).

Treating the person as valid—radical genuineness: The therapist sees the client as she is, acknowledging her difficulties and challenges, as well as her strengths and inherent wisdom. The therapist responds to her as an equal, deserving of respect, rather than seeing her as just a client or patient, or, worse, as a disorder. Linehan (1997) points out that level 6 validation involves acting in ways that assume the individual is capable, but that this must come from the therapist’s genuine self, and that at this level, almost any response by the therapist can be validating: “The key is in what message the therapist’s behavior communicates and how accurate the message is”

Sources: DBT Made Simple