Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to reduce stress and simplify life. For example, we finally decided to get rid of cable TV. We realized that we were paying about $50 a month for something we hardly ever used, and that cable TV was actually causing more headaches than it was worth. We had an old PVR machine that hardly ever recorded things properly, and it seemed unnecessary to have several different systems to access media (cable, iTunes, Netflix, Crave, and so on). So far, we haven’t regretted it, but it is early yet.
Beyond little life complications, another major driving force in my life stress is usually related to other people’s expectations, deadlines, and timelines. Although for most things I do, I’m not exactly beholden to another person’s deadlines or timelines, I nevertheless feel a strong degree of pressure to finish things quickly, send things to people when they want me to, and so forth. In reality, this is probably “made up stress,” in that nothing terrible is going to happen in most cases if I don’t send an email, a book chapter, manuscript, or anything else to someone when they want me to. Nevertheless, made up stress can also be very real! Compounding the problem, I often end up in a situation where I ask someone when they would like to hear back from me, and they simply say “ASAP.”
This has brought to mind a couple of helpful DBT skills. The first one is called checking the facts, and part of that skill involves considering whether you are assuming that a threatening or catastrophic situation will occur. In my case, even though I don’t explicitly think that something terrible will happen if I don’t make someone else’s deadline, my nervous system seems to act as if that’s the case. Therefore, I find it quite helpful to use the skill of checking the facts to consider alternative scenarios. If I don’t send something to someone on time, there are many possibilities: they might be upset, they might be inconvenienced, they might forget that they wanted it by a certain date, they might simply try to remind me or let me know that they want it soon, and so on. In most cases, it’s incredibly unlikely that something awful will happen.
After walking through checking the facts, I realized that the next step is to figure out what interpersonal effectiveness skills I could use to change things. The interpersonal effectiveness skills in DBT have to do with strategies to effectively ask for what you want and say no to things. There are also skills to help you decide whether to ask for something or to say no and how intensely to do either. Now, when someone asked me to produce something quickly or by a certain date, I first ask myself whether I’m willing to do that and whether this is a situation in which I might consider saying no. Then, I consider factors that might help me decide how strongly to say no, such as timing, whether I am able to do the thing the person is asking, the nature of my relationship with the other person, whether the person has authority over me, whether saying no is consistent with my long-term goals, among other factors (for all the factors, see Linehan, 2015: DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd Edition). It takes a little time to think through these factors, so my new strategy when someone asks me for something is to let them know that I need a little time to think about it. Then, if I’ve walked through these factors and decided that I’m willing to do what the other person is asking, I can still say no to their deadline. These days, I often say that I am willing to do it but then give my own deadline. If someone says they want something ASAP, I usually get back to them and say that they might either need to get someone else to do it or wait until I am able to do it. My position on this is much like the U.S. position on negotiating with terrorists: I don’t respond to ASAP (unless the person who says it is my wife)!
I know that not all of us have the ability or position in our career or everyday life to pull this off, but that’s why the interpersonal effectiveness skills include factors to think through ahead of time. In some cases, you might simply have to meet someone else’s deadlines/demands, and when you entertain the factors to decide whether to say yes or no, all of them point in the direction of saying, “Yes.” That’s OK, that will happen, and if it does, at least you know that you used a helpful skill to give the decision serious consideration and took the time to consider your needs as well as those of others. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.