Mike Tyson did an interview during his prime and was asked whether or not he needed a trainer since he was the world champion. He answered quickly, “I know it all, I just don’t execute all of it. My trainer’s job is to is to continuously train me until I do it right. I know everything, I just don’t do everything.”
Some would say it was out of conceit, but I think there is a lot of truth to it. Even though he knew it all, his body had to execute the knowledge. That’s what took time, that’s what took repetition, that’s what took a coach to help him get it exactly right. He said in another interview,
People think I was born this way. They don’t know what it took to get this way. The training, when you have to do things over and over again until you’re sore. Deep in your mind you say, God, I don’t want to do this no more, and then you push.
And that’s what I think about as I make my journey towards mental health. Back when I first started Dialectical Behavior Therapy, I knew the skills the program taught me in just a few months. In fact, these so-called “skills” seemed all too easy to learn. I was skeptical — surely a fifth-grader could do this! But the thing was, I was still suffering greatly. I still had urges, filled with pessimism and was in a constant struggle just to survive. If the skills were the answer to my difficulties, the solution was falling short.
I started to think that the treatment wasn’t working. Sure, I knew what the skills were but I insisted they weren’t the right fit. Dumb, stupid skills — how could they help me with my immense pain? I thought about quitting. I wasn’t making the progress I thought I should have been making by now. “This treatment is ineffective,” I protested. The skills, I thought, were outmatched by my suffering.
Before I decided to quit, I gave the program another shot and committed to doing the work. Week by week I would practice these skills that seemed too simplistic. In truth, it wasn’t that simple. It took me out of my comfort zone. It forced me to think differently, to start new habits and to let go of entrenched, old ones. I didn’t enjoy doing the homework, but I did it.
And then the real fight happened.
The gates flooded open and a rush of urges overcame me. I automatically thought of my go-to habits and unhealthy behaviors to quell the pain. I knew, however, it wouldn’t get me to where I wanted to be. I’d have to practice the stupid skills but I knew that skills were no match for my urges. I did not have the will inside me to use the skills on my own. And that’s when I called my coach.
The best part of DBT is that you’re not alone in the fight. I called my therapist for coaching skills — she reminded me of the actionable skills I could use over and over again until the wave of urges had subsided. She described things that were so easy to understand during treatment but were so difficult to call upon when dysregulated. “Once you’ve done that, I want you to check in with me to tell me what other skills you’ve used.” And with that, these skills — something I knew — would be taken out of theory and into the real world. I executed the practice, over and over again until I, too, was mentally sore.
And that’s when you push. You push yourself to do the skills over and over again until one of them sticks and the bell rings and the urges are over. The fight is so difficult when it’s your own mind — it’s exhausting — but you push yourself to use skills that once seemed ineffective until they become effective. You trust that they work and with great faith, you execute the knowledge. Calling my therapist back was just the reinforcement I needed to say that the skills were worth using and that I had made it through another fight, victorious.
As the months progressed to years, the skills became more fluid. Eventually I started not even to think about regulating my emotions. The skills were in my bones, just as naturally as a boxer can throw a 1-2 combination. And like fighters, the skills took time, practice and counseling in order for me to execute. What usually takes six months to complete took me over 2 years, coach in hand. Even though we went through the same skills over and over again, my body had to execute the knowledge. We need to do it over and over again until our knowledge is distilled into experience.
To me, getting towards the goal of a healthy life is a fight. It’s hard work. It’s uncomfortable. It takes practice. There is no easy cure, no meds to call our own (though for some it is helpful). But as difficult as the road is, we’re not alone in the struggle. With skills in hand and a coach in our corner, we keep pushing on.