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Reciprocity: Practicing What I Teach

Reciprocity: Practicing What I Teach

This feature by Gwen Abney Cunningham, LMSW is about the impact of applying DBT assumptions and skills not only with clients, but with herself as a practitioner.


As of late, I have been pondering the motivating factors that keep me practicing as a DBT therapist. In the last year and half, it has been more difficult! I ask, “What keeps me going???” The ultimate answer is that the individuals we work with get better!    

As I continue to ponder and ask my WISE MIND, there is SOOO much more that keeps me going.

I am amazed at how much I have learned and grown as a clinician and as a person. We discuss in DBT how relationships are a real and equal relationship, as well as transactional. The individuals I work with continue to teach me the most!  They certainly help me to be mindful and to be skillful, both in session and in my personal life.  

When I am starting with an individual in DBT, I share that everything I am teaching them, I have adopted and use myself. I also share my fallibility. I do not always use the skills as quickly as would be beneficial.  

As DBT practitioners, we are asked to adopt a set of assumptions for both clients and the therapy. Adopting the assumptions has been very helpful in my clinical work to help me stay balanced. I have also found adopting some of the assumptions in my personal life to be quite beneficial. Such as, applying the assumptions to individuals in my personal life that they are doing the best they can, they want to improve, they need to do better, try harder & be more motivated is very helpful in regulating my emotions. This ultimately assists in the interactions I have with them and maintains self-respect.  

Of course, it is quite possible that individuals in my personal life may not have the same goal in mind as I do. It is possible they may not think what they are doing is a problem. Adopting these assumptions assists me with getting and staying in my Wise Mind. I may have to repeat these assumptions over and over in my mind’s eye. Adopting these assumptions assists me in being kinder to myself and to others.

The assumption that principles of behavior are universal has certainly been helpful when I am engaging in perfectionist behaviors. It helps to stop and remember that shaping is part of the process for all of us. Even when I wish it just came naturally or by osmosis. We often coach our clients to practice, practice, practice. We remind them that not everything comes naturally. I find that I need to remind myself of this consistently.

When I am in session and sometimes having to address something very difficult, I am reminded that clarity, precision, and compassion are of the upmost importance to help the clients reach their ultimate goals. That the most compassionate gesture can be to bring up and address difficult topics. Of course, using  DEAR MAN and GIVE assists with the discussion.  

This assumption has also been very helpful in my personal relationships when I am put to the task of addressing hard things – things I would MUCH prefer to avoid. My mantra often is, “The most compassionate thing I can do is talk about this. I care about this person. They will not know if I do not address.” In addition, the skill of opposite action of approaching when I have the urge to avoid is imperative.

Working with clients side by side is an amazing honor. It is an incredible journey. I am hopeful that they learn half as much from me as I learn from them.

I continue to be in awe of the resilience that the individuals we work with possess. I think about all the hard work they are doing, and it motivates me to keep working hard. It motivates me to continue to attempt to be my best self. Also, attempting to apply the skills in my personal life provides me with understanding of how it is not a simple task.   

As you think about your practice in life, I want to encourage you to keep using the skills and applying the assumptions as they relate to you. 

For more about applying skills to your own life as a practitioner, read here for this narrative piece from Alexander Chapman, PhD, R.Psych on Family Dinners and Emotion Regulation.


Gwen Abney-Cunningham, LMSW, has been a Behavioral Tech trainer for 14 years. Ms. Abney-Cunningham received her Bachelors degree from Hope College and her MSW from Grand Valley State University. She has 25 years of professional experience and is a member of one of the first teams in the U.S. to apply DBT within an ACT program. Read her full bio here.