Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Whatever Happened to Assertiveness Training?

My fellow blogger over at BehaveNet had an interesting entry on 4/23 that described an experience with a consultant who came to talk to a psychiatric hospital staff on the topic of "physician burnout." The consultant suggested that the psychiatric staff consider using mindfulness techniques to basically chill out about all the stresses under which they have been working.

In the mindfulness post that I wrote, which is linked above, I opined that so-called mindfulness techniques can be quite helpful under certain types of circumstances. Most important, they can help one stay relaxed and clear-headed when being subjected to environmental stressors that fall mainly into two categories: 1. Common, everyday types of stresses due to the vicissitudes of life that change from day to day and that almost all of us experience, or, 2. Those stressful environmental contingencies over which one has zero hope of changing or correcting. (Mindfulness techniques can also help one stay more relaxed when tackling situations that need to be changed or corrected).

The stresses that lead to physician burnout may not fall into one of these two categories. In fact, one of the most common causes is managed care insurance companies and business types with no medical or psychiatric expertise who are constantly telling doctors what they can or cannot do, and making their professional lives miserable. 

What this consultant seemed to be recommending was using mindfulness techniques as a means of employing something that is definitely not called for in this type of situation: passivity

Insurance companies and business people need us doctors more than we need them. We should be doing whatever we can to get them out of the way of effective patient treatment as well as to stop them from preventing us from having a normal and balanced work/life schedule.

The BehaveNet blogger hit the nail on the head: "Dr. Meredith's prescription of mindfulness to address the problem suggests to me a strategy to get physicians to devote adequate time to contemplation of our navels so we will learn to tolerate even more abuse and exploitation with a smile and a "Yessuh, Massah." The blogger suggests that instead doctors push back, refuse, resign, set limits, make demands, and maybe even disrupt things.

This recommendation should also be applied to what psychotherapists do with their patients.

There is unfortunately a current psychotherapy craze of teaching mindfulness techniques to help patients with major family issues to learn to tolerate their stressful family and relationship lives with more equanimity. This is crazy. Not to mention invalidating to patients, as it seems to imply that the problem resides entirely with them. Instead, therapists should be inspiring them, and teaching them how, to fix the situations that are creating their stress in the first place.

I am not saying that the patients' own behavior does not contribute to the dysfunctional family patterns of which they are a part. Clearly it does. But that just means they have to change their own behavior in reaction to the abuse, distancing, and double messages which they receive on a daily basis from their family system members. Doing so is in fact a good strategy for stopping these patterns, not merely tolerating them better.

Cognitive behavior (CBT) therapists have become the biggest champions of using mindfulness techniques for patients with these personality/family problems. This is ironic because back in the 1970's those very same CBT therapists were the very ones who labeled being passive a form of psychopathology! As also mentioned in the BehaveNet blog post, they used to advocate something called assertiveness training.

Basically, in response to mistreatment, assertiveness training theory described one helpful general pattern of responding and three dysfunctional ones. The dysfunctional ones were labeled passive (just sit there, take it, and do nothing about it), aggressive (attack the other person verbally or even physically to impose your will on them), and passive-aggressive (mad at your husband? Burn his toast).

The healthy response was called assertiveness - that meant speaking up for yourself and demanding respect without trying to bring the other person down, disrespecting their needs and viewpoints, casting aspersions on them, or in any way attacking them.

After a period of teaching assertiveness skills to their patients, CBT therapists began to back down from it little by little. They were later forced to admit that the "healthy" responses they taught might get someone beat up or killed in some situations, so it might be best to let some things go.  If you speak up when someone butts in front of you in line these days, the other person may go ballistic and hit you or even pull out a gun. Thankfully this does not happen very often if one is not aggressive, but it is a risk.

Additionally and gradually, the CBT therapists began to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone's problems are all just in their heads. Just like the psychoanalysts they replaced. Last, when it came to intractable family dysfunction, assertiveness skills just did not seem to work all that well anyway.

I have found that with ongoing repetitive family problems, the sort of generic assertiveness skills taught by CBT therapists in fact do not work. That is because family members have developed a whole repertoire of counter-moves that scream to the member attempting to be assertive, "You are wrong, change back." Some of these counter-moves are quite frightening - I described many in a previous post. All involve the person who is trying to be assertive being invalidated in some way and made to feel small for daring to speak up.

This hardly means, however, that the proper strategy for handling these problems is passivity. What I discovered is that the assertiveness training techniques that used to be taught had to be modified to fit the sensitivities and histories of each of the other family members being addressed. These modifications were different for every family, and they had to be tailored specifically to each one. No "one size fits all" here. 

Furthermore, there is no way to know in advance which strategy might work best in a given context, but there was almost always one that could be devised that could help diffuse the family drama significantly for any patient.

I discussed many different strategies in my series of posts in this blog on How to Disarm a Borderline and in another series entitled Ve have Vays of Making You Talk.

So, the CBT therapists had the right idea about assertiveness training before they kinda gave up on it and resorted to the "distress tolerance skills" that are actually part and parcel of what they used to label dysfunctional passivity. They instead should have listened to some of the ideas from family systems therapists in order to improve their therapeutic techniques. 

Mindful passivity? Plenty of time for that at a certain point in the future. As the lyrics from an old song by "Weird Al" Yankovic that used to be played by satirical disc jockey Dr. Demento proclaimed, "I'll be mellow when I'm dead."


  1. The current nonsense of mindfulness = acceptance is nowhere to be found in Buddhist texts, according to a friend of mine who was the English translator for HH the Dalai Lama.

    Mindfulness involves training faculties of awareness and attention in order to deeply understand a phenomenon, be it one's family, workplace, or the self, in order to CHANGE. Acceptance is for serfs.

    Distress tolerance is important because without that we can't explore our distress deeply enough to figure out how to deal with what is causing it. We engage in behaviors which give symptomatic relief, but can make things worse in the long run. By tolerating our distress and exploring its causes and effects we can act more effectively.

  2. Hi Jparpaia,

    Yes, you are correct, and Marsha Linehan, who started the mindfulness craze, originally thought of acceptance of the way things are as a prelude to changing them, just as you described.

    Distress tolerance skills were taught in groups separate from the individual psychotherapy component. She also strongly implied that family intervention might eventually be necessary, but then never described any!

    From what I could see, the half-formed mindfulness skills that had been taught in the groups started to be offered in many places as the only therapy given, probably because the change part was a lot more complicated and difficult. And individual therapy with unlimited phone contact, the other two parts of Linehan's DBT treatment, are very expensive to offer.

  3. Thanks David. I appreciate the added context. I also appreciate the time you put into this. Thanks again.