DBT Skills: Building Healthy and Fulfilling Relationships

“You can be a good person, with a kind heart, And still say no.”

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I can’t tell you how many times a week our Teen Team shares this quote with clients. We usually hear statements like:

  • “I can’t tell her I don’t like when she says that! She’ll get mad at me!”

  • “There’s absolutely no way I can share how I feel about what he did. What if he doesn’t like me anymore?”

  • “I can’t ever say ‘no.’ It’s too uncomfortable and I want people to think I’m nice.”

It can be so hard for many of us, especially teens, to build healthy relationships where we can both ask for what we need AND have the ability to say no to something we don’t like. In DBT, your teen will learn interpersonal effectiveness - in other words, skills to improve relationships.

We often get stuck in unhealthy relationships because we don’t value ourselves enough to know we deserve better. Teens want to fit in, and fitting in often means not being unique, which creates the perfect situation to lose yourself in an unhealthy friendship or relationship - one that does not align with your teen’s morals or values.

We want your teen to know:

  • they matter

  • their opinion is valued

  • it’s ok to have needs and wants

  • it’s ok to be different and unique

  • it’s ok to say ‘no’

Not only do we want your teens to know this, we want them to practice communicating being assertive. We want them to learn that assertiveness does not equal being “mean,” and that if someone doesn’t like them because they were assertive, they don’t have to bend themselves for that relationship.

Think your teen could benefit from practicing assertiveness to build healthier and happier relationships? Your teen will learn all about this and 4 other DBT skills at our DBT Spring Break Workshop! Click the button below to learn more.

DBT Skills: Helping Your Teen Tolerate Distress

We see hundreds of teens a week here at The Center for Family Empowerment and help them cope through crises regularly. Here are some situations that might trigger a crisis:

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  • failing a test

  • getting in a fight with friends

  • being teased

  • parents divorcing

  • having to take an airplane

  • not getting the desired role in the school play

A lot of teens don’t yet have the skills to manage crises effectively - they might self-harm, overeat, engage in drugs and alcohol, participate in risky behavior, completely shut down, burn relationships, avoid doing anything, etc.. And the consequences to dealing ineffectively with a crisis might be: damaged relationships, poor health, feeling embarrassed/guilty/ashamed, being hospitalized, etc.

One of the many things your teen will learn in DBT is distress tolerance: how to cope with difficult emotions when they arise. The goal here is to teach your teen NOT to get rid of emotions or never have them, but to have them and cope with them.

One of the most valuable skills for your teen to learn are called Crisis Survival Skills - which require balance between dealing with the crisis and taking a break. These breaks are meant to be planned and temporary as avoiding a crisis will result in higher emotions and more distress.

Think your teen could benefit from learning concrete ways to tolerate crises and make healthier choices? Your teen will learn all about this and 4 other DBT skills at our DBT Spring Break Workshop! Click the button below to learn more.

DBT Skills: Regulating Big Emotions

Does your teen ever say any of the following:

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  • I shouldn’t feel this way.

  • I’m supposed to feel happier.

  • I’m a bad person because I fee depressed or anxious.

  • There’s something wrong with me because I feel bad.

  • People won’t like me if they really know how I’m feeling.

These are some of the most common misconceptions about emotions, and ones we hear our teen clients say on a weekly basis. It’s common to think this way, but it’s important to learn that these statements aren’t true. Remember we talked about emotions triggering judgments, which triggers the emotional spiral? Well, here we are. Those statements above hold so much judgment about what we should be doing, or what is right vs wrong.

What your teen would learn in DBT is emotion regulation: learning to understand and balance emotions. This part of DBT teaches us skills to help:

  • observe and describe emotions (focusing on facts to get into Wise Mind)

  • increase positive emotions

  • avoid emotional suffering

  • act effectively when feeling difficult emotions

The thing is, emotions are complicated, confusing, enjoyable, and a huge part of what makes us human. It’s so important for your teen to learn:

  • emotions hold no judgment (they aren’t good/bad or right/wrong)

  • they are not their emotion

  • they can’t get rid of or ignore emotions

  • emotions don’t last forever!

  • emotions are not facts

  • they can both have an emotion and not act on it

  • emotions are unique to them

Understanding the above points will help your teen decrease judgments, reduce their emotional spiral, and offer acceptance and compassion for what they are feeling.

Think your teen could benefit from better regulating their emotions? Your teen will learn all about this and 4 other DBT skills at our DBT Spring Break Workshop! Click the button below to learn more.

DBT Skills: Stopping The Emotional Spiral

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How many of us can relate to emotions feeling like they spiral out of control? How many times have you seen your teen start at an emotional 1 and end really quickly at 100? You might hear things like:

  • “I can’t control my feelings right now”

  • “there’s nothing I can do to help myself when I’m this upset”

  • “no, I will NOT use my skills because I’m too emotional and they don’t work!”

DBT would say that often times our emotions spiral out of control as a result of judgments we have while in Emotion Mind. When we are emotional, it usually triggers a judgment response:

  • "That is so unfair!"

  • "I can't believe they made the wrong decision. They should have listened to me!"

  • "I wish I wasn't so ugly."

  • “I can’t believe I failed my math test. I’m SO stupid!”

Judgment words (as bolded above) are rooted in emotion mind, and offer no logic or facts (therefore making us unable to be effective in Wise Mind). And it’s these judgments that create the emotional spiral! It’s also these judgments that hinder self-esteem development.

The thing is… we all do this, but judgments can be especially detrimental to the developing teen. As they begin to pull away from parents and search for their identity in their peers and in society, their judgments about others and the world impact their worldview and their self-worth. They begin to believe their opinions (judgments) are facts, and it shapes their sense of self. How many times have you heard your teen use a statement like the ones above? And for the teen that continually judges someone as better/prettier/more popular than they are, that becomes their "truth." Knowing all of this, it's no wonder that self-esteem peaks at age 9!

The good news is that DBT skills can help! There's a skill called Non-Judgmental Stance, which means focusing on the facts. We do this by identifying our emotions and opinions in order to differentiate them from the facts. Since judgment increases anxiety, depression, and negative thoughts, this is one of the first foundational skills our DBT Spring Break workshop will teach.

Let's use this example. Emily is a teen girl who just failed her math test. Her first thought is "I'm so stupid. I can't believe I failed!" This is highly emotional AND judgmental. I'm sure you can imagine how detrimental these thoughts can be, especially to teens.

Thus, the spiral continues. We can imagine Emily felt disappointed by her grade. This disappointment triggered her judgment of being stupid. And now that she’s telling herself she’s stupid, she feels angry and worse about herself, which increases her judgments about herself, which then makes her more emotional. And so the spiral continues. You can see how it’s pretty easy to go from 1-100 now, huh?!

A replacement statement might be: "I'm frustrated that I got a lower grade than I was hoping for. Next time I know that I need to spend more time preparing." This statement has no judgment, and allows Emily to acknowledge her true feelings behind the low grade, validate them, and decide how to do it differently in the future.

Practicing a non-judgmental stance is really hard, and nobody is ever perfect at it. But if you are able to start challenging some of the judgments - both yours and your teen's - you will find positive results. As nonjudgmental thoughts increase, depression/anxiety/negative self thoughts decrease as well.

Our DBT Spring Break Workshop will teach your teens how to identify their judgments, how to identify their underlying emotions, and how to create replacement statements to avoid the emotional spiral.

Think your teen could benefit from learning this skill and 4 other DBT skills at our DBT Spring Break Workshop? Click the link below for more information!

DBT Skills: Helping Your Teen Make Healthier Choices

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I’m sure we are all aware of how big emotions can get for teens.

“OMG! I hate my math teacher! I’m never going to her class again!”

“There’s no way I can possibly go to school tomorrow knowing how anxious I am!”

How could she do this to me?! I’m so angry I could break something!”

The things is… these emotions are valid. Your teen is allowed to feel that way. AND what most teens don’t know is that they can feel those feelings and not act based on them.

DBT says that States of Mind are our outlooks or perspectives on different situations. What State of Mind we are in has a big impact on what we experience and the decisions that we make. DBT teaches us that we have three States of Mind: Emotion Mind, Logic or Reason Mind, and Wise Mind.

When we are in Emotion Mind, we are focused on and driven by our emotions. This means that our feelings are driving the car, not us! In Emotion Mind, we aren’t focusing on facts but instead focusing on feelings. Here are some examples of Emotion Mind:

-         Ripping up a test after getting a disappointing grade
-         Getting into a screaming match during a disagreement
-         Engaging in self harming or self destructive behaviors based on anxiety or depression

Logic or Reason Mind is the opposite of Emotion Mind – here we are solely focused on being logical and what we can prove, not on how we feel. Here are some examples of Logic or Reason Mind:

-          Baking or following a recipe
-          Counting
-          Reading a book

Finally, Wise Mind is the combination of both Emotion and Logic Minds. This is the ideal – the space we want to be where we can feel our feelings AND focus on the facts. We are most effective here because we can validate our emotions and not necessarily act just on them. The beauty is in the balancebalancing what we feel and what we know. Here are some examples of Wise Mind:

-          Studying for a test before watching TV
-          Using DBT skills instead of making an unhealthy or unsafe choice
-          Taking a break from a fight, calming down, and then revisiting what happened

It’s normal for each of us to spend time in each of these States of Mind. Being aware of what State of Mind we are in greatly helps us determine how to be effective and healthy. If your teen is aware that they are in Emotion Mind, they are better able to both learn and use their skills to bring themselves into Wise Mind; thus creating a space where your teen can feel empowered knowing their feelings are valid AND knowing they can still be healthy and safe.

Think your teen could benefit from understanding States of Mind to better manage their emotional overwhelm and make healthier choices? Your teen will learn all about this and 4 other DBT skills at our DBT Spring Break Workshop! Click the button below to learn more.

Love Languages, Part 2: You Loving You!

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And we’re back for part two of the Love Languages miniseries! Last time, we looked at each of the five love languages and how they might be expressed in a relationship. Hopefully more of your relationships look like the healthy version of expressing these languages than the toxic versions. If that is not the case, hopefully you now have a better sense of how a healthy relationship can look - and you can start building up the relationships that show those positive qualities.

Today, we’re going to look at another very important aspect of speaking your love language: how you speak to yourself! Truthfully, I could have reversed the order of these articles, since loving others works best when you have love for yourself. But we’re here now, so let’s dig in and have a look. If you took the quiz, you probably have a good sense of what your top one or two languages are. All five are relevant, but you’ll want to pay especially close attention to those that speak most to you.

Ready? Ok, let’s get to it! 

What is self-love, actually? (Stop giggling)

Yes, it can certainly include that. And that’s actually a great way to express the language of Physical Touch to yourself in a positive way. But it’s not the only definition of self-love.

Aside from the slightly scandalous definition of self-love, what does it mean to truly have love for yourself? For some of us, our relationships with narcissistic family members or partners may have seriously skewed our impressions of self-love. And it’s true that one of the traits of a narcissist is excessive self-admiration and vanity. But it is possible to have self-love without being narcissistic.

Really loving yourself involves knowing yourself and welcoming all parts of you. In my favorite therapeutic way of working, Internal Family Systems (IFS for short), we call the place that holds this unconditional love, Self. Everyone has a Self, and everyone’s Self has unconditional love, acceptance, and compassion for each and every part of them. Even the ones that make you feel embarrassed when they come out. Even the ones that self-sabotage you at times. The love that Self has for those parts is a love that sees the inherent value in a person or part, and has appreciation for the good intentions of each of your parts.

True love for yourself can be expressed through each of the five love languages. Let’s take a look at how you can reach for that Self and access the unconditional love that you carry within you. 

Love language: Words of Affirmation

To review, author Gary Chapman defines the language Words of Affirmation as “using words to build up [another] person.” Verbal praise, compliments, expressions of appreciation, and encouraging phrases are all expressions of this language. Expressing this language to yourself includes being aware of your self-talk, or how you respond to yourself within your own head and heart.

Most of us have some kind of running dialogue in the back of our minds, narrating our choices and commenting on the proceedings. Is your running commentary more like Mystery Science Theater 3000, with snark and sarcasm? Or is it a voice of encouragement, affirming your value even if you mess up? (Don’t get me wrong, I love me some MST3K - but those would be hard voices to carry around all the time).

Pay attention to how you talk to yourself.

If you make a mistake, do you berate yourself? Or are you able to say “well, that didn’t go the way I’d hoped. I did my best, and hopefully the next time will work out better.” One is an expression of Words of Affirmation toward yourself. The other is its antithesis. Which sounds more familiar? And how can you practice speaking to yourself in a kind and loving way?

Love language: Gifts

Review: Gifts can be anything given or purchased for you specifically because someone thought of you. They don’t have to be expensive, and there should be some meaning and intentionality in the giving. You can express this language to yourself through material gifts or gifts of time, space, and rest. You can also express this language by choosing not to make yourself “earn” these gifts, instead offering them to yourself as an act of love.

How many times have you told yourself you would only purchase that new outfit once you lost weight, so you’d look better in it? Maybe you’ve been waiting to buy a much-desired pair of shoes because you feel like you don’t deserve something nice, no matter how much you want it. Or you choose not to attend to your social needs because you feel like you should do something else, whether or not it’s what you actually want.

If you are an introvert, one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is quiet time to recharge after socializing with other people. If you are an extravert, the gift might be accepting the invitation to a party where you can gain energy from being in a crowd. And expressing a love language does not require you to earn the gift. It’s an offering that you make to yourself without reservation. An expression of recognition that you have intrinsic value, and that you deserve to be kind and loving to yourself. What is it like to give to yourself in this way? 

Love language: Acts of Service

Review: An Act of Service is an action or behavior that you do because you know that it will please your loved one. When the loved one is you, that act may look more like accepting an act of service from someone else. One specific but fairly common way that this may show up is in accepting help as a new mom. If someone offers a free meal or wants to come entertain your older children while you adjust to newborn life again, you can accept the offer. Of course, the caveat is that if you know the offer comes with strings attached, it may be more in service to yourself to decline. But if the offer is in good faith and genuine, accept the gift of another’s Act of Service to you.

Other ways to show love through Acts of Service may include giving yourself permission to farm out tasks that you struggle with. If it is within your budget, you may have a cleaning service deep-clean your home or apartment every so often. Or you may hire a neighborhood kid to mow the lawn, since you hate doing it with a passion. And doing so out of Self-love means you can hire the kid without having to justify not doing it yourself six ways from Sunday. It is a choice you can make because it feeds your soul to free yourself from having to do it.

Love language: Quality Time

Review: Quality Time is time spent giving someone your undivided and genuine attention. Rather than just passively watching television, you are engaged with the other person and fully present in the moment with them. In Self-love, you may speak this language by carving out time to fully focus on yourself. Maybe you set aside time each morning to meditate and hold an intention for a positive, peaceful day. Or perhaps you decline an invitation to a family event that will bring stress, because you choose to give yourself that time instead.

Quality time may also look like creating space for yourself. Maybe if you do go to the family event, you choose to stay at a hotel rather than at your father-in-law’s house. That way you have an escape when things become tense or exhausting. You can check in with the parts of you that find it hard to be around him, and give yourself the gift of your own full attention. What is it like to give yourself the care, concern, and compassion that you so easily give others? Or, if you never have - what could it be like to try that?

Love language: Physical Touch

Review: Last but not least, Physical Touch is an expression of love through any form of physical contact. This can be sexual or nonsexual, and does not require a partner when acting in love toward yourself. As noted above, sexual gratification can be an expression of this love language, and may be a great way to explore what feels best for you. For those whose sexual needs have been exploited, unattended to, dismissed, or mistreated, masturbation may be part of a healing journey of regaining some control of this piece of yourself.

You can also engage in nonsexual physical touch as an act of love toward yourself. Notice how you engage with your body in daily life. Do you wait until your bladder is bursting to excuse yourself to the bathroom, because you’re trying so hard to be a good, dedicated employee? Or do you attend to your needs in a timely fashion? When you’re rushing to get ready in the morning, are you yanking the comb through your hair or gently working out the snarls? If you are sore from the gym, do you force yourself right back into it despite the pain, or can you gently massage the sore muscles and modify your activity until you feel better?

Our physical bodies are intimately connected to our emotional and mental experience of ourselves. Showing lovingkindness to our physical selves can be a way of beginning to access emotional and mental kindness to ourselves. Your body carries you through this world. How can you show it love and appreciation for what it does for you?

What if I can’t speak my language to myself? 

It is very likely that you will find one or more languages that you struggle to speak to yourself. Maybe the one that means the most to you from others is the hardest to speak in your own life. If that’s the case, remember this: practice makes it easier. It takes conscious effort to change the way you interact with yourself, but it’s very much worth that effort.

Practicing Self-love brings you into a different heartspace. From that heartspace, you can more readily, easily, and deeply engage in healthy and loving relationships with friends and family. And you can better protect yourself from the wounds of those who cannot be healthy with you. When you care for yourself - truly care - you are slower to rationalize and justify accepting abusive treatment from someone else. It is easier to set boundaries, because they are an act of love for yourself rather than an act of defense against someone else.

Give it a try. See how your mindset can shift.

And remember, you are worthy of your own love, care, and compassion.

Love Languages, Part 1: You in Relationships


How was your Valentine’s Day? Full of affection, hearts, and chocolate? Wine, cheese, and chick flicks (or sci-fantasy, whatever floats your boat!)? Whether you look forward to the holiday or view it as just another money-maker for greeting card companies, I hope it was a happy day for you.

Although the holiday has passed now, it does highlight something that I think is worth thinking about all 365 days of the year: love! This will be the first of a two-part miniseries in which we explore what love actually look like. Today, we will look at love in romantic and platonic relationships. In Part 2, we will look at what it means to love ourselves.

How full is your love tank?

In the book The Five Love Languages, author Gary Chapman focuses on three key concepts. First, there are five core ways to show and receive love, and we each identify with one or two as our primary languages. Second, your satisfaction in a romantic or even platonic relationship is strongly influenced by how full your “gas tank of love” is (hey, don’t look at me -  I didn’t pick that analogy). And third, your best relationships will be those in which your friends or partner willingly and enthusiastically speak your primary love language.

There are two aspects of this that I want to talk about today: how much your partners and loved ones contribute to your tank being full or empty, and how much you can fill or empty your tank. Single or partnered, we all have social ties that can either make our lives better or bring us pain. And we all walk around with ourselves in our own heads 24/7. So let’s take a look at how you and your loved ones impact your love tank.

Love language: Words of Affirmation

Chapman defines this love language as “using words to build up [another] person.” This includes verbal praise, compliments, expressions of appreciation, and encouraging phrases. In a loving friendship or romantic partnership, your partner might express this by telling you how great you look as you get ready for a date - or hang around the house in your comfy sweats and messy sock bun. You might speak this language by telling a friend how much you appreciate their support and encouragement.

If your primary love language is Words of Affirmation, you’ll also notice its absence in relationships that are toxic or unhealthy. Disparaging remarks, insults, name-calling, backhanded “compliments,” and accusations will all cut deeply. Sarcasm and condescension from a loved one can be especially hurtful for those who speak Words of Affirmation.

Love language: Gifts

Gifts can be anything given or purchased for you specifically because someone thought of you. A gift may be an expensive piece of jewelry or a pretty flower picked along the side of the road. The focus is not the size of the gift, but the intention - to give something you anticipate will bring joy to another person. A friend or partner may speak your language of Gifts by giving you meaningful things of any size. Souvenirs from a trip, flowers when you’re feeling down, or a little “thinking of you” trinket are all Gifts. A caring romantic partner may give special attention to gift-giving holidays such as Christmas or birthdays, to ensure that you feel special and acknowledged.

In narcissistic relationships, gifts may be used to manipulate. If someone says “my love language is gifts” and then proceeds to use gifts as leverage, they are not truly speaking this language. Money, clothing, expensive items, and even favors may be used to pressure the recipient into doing what the narcissist wants. This is not in the spirit of speaking the language of Gifts, which are given with no strings attached.

Love language: Acts of Service

An Act of Service is an action or behavior that you do because you know that it will please your loved one. Some examples of acts of service could include changing the oil in your wife’s car, taking care of the laundry pile that’s been growing in the corner, or mowing your friend’s lawn for them when they’re overwhelmed with new parenthood. If this is your language, it may be especially meaningful that your partner takes out the trash or empties the litter box every week so that you don’t have to. You may speak this language to someone else by taking on a task they find onerous, because you know they will truly appreciate not having to do it themselves.

In an unhealthy relationship, a toxic loved one may twist Acts of Service by guilt-tripping after the fact. They may perform an Act of Service but will never let you forget that they did it - and will expect something in return. Usually that something is compliance, submission, uneven repayment, or undying loyalty. While all healthy relationships involve a level of reciprocity, doing something explicitly to obtain a return should not be the motivation.

Love language: Quality Time

When you speak the language of Quality time, you give your undivided attention to another person. So not Netflix and chill - more like having a conversation without cell phone distractions. Going out to dinner and soaking up the time spent together. Taking a walk where you don’t even have to say anything - you can just enjoy each other’s presence. Many people mistake time spent around each other for quality time. The difference lies in both intention and attention.

In a narcissistic relationship, a narcissist may substitute an excess of together time for quality time. There is such a thing as too much time together. Families who spend too much time together don't have the opportunity to develop as individuals. Enmeshed families may spend nearly all their free time together, but quantity is not the same as quality.

Love language: Physical Touch

Last but not least, Physical Touch is an expression of love through any form of physical contact. Touch may be sexual or nonsexual, and should convey care and affection. Hugs, kisses, holding hands, and sex may be expressions of the language of Touch. So can platonic shoulder bumps, pats on the back, and high fives. As long as the touch is consensual, welcomed, and received as respectful, it can be an expression of love. It should go without saying that touch can be a physical boundary as well, and that you should not assume your boundaries and a friend’s or partner’s are always the same. When in doubt, ask! And respect the response you are given.

A toxic or narcissistic loved one may use Physical Touch to dominate, coerce, or hurt another person. In these relationships, Touch may be misrepresented as "loving" when it is anything but. When Touch is used to control or hurt another person, that is not love. Nor is it love when Touch is exercised purely for the empowerment or benefit of the toucher instead of the touchee. This does not have to be sexual in order for it to bring pain.

What's my language?

Now that you know all five languages, think about when you feel most or least loved. What love language do you think is your primary one? Which one(s) speak to you least? And which relationships fill up your love tank the most? If you're unsure, take the quiz and find out!

Tune in next time as we explore how you can fill up or deplete your own tank!

Too Much Time on Phones? Schedule an Hour of No Technology with Your Family!

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Technology, we all agree, has gotten out of hand.  We have our phones within an arm’s length away at all times (even in the bathroom, gross)! Research has shown that blue light suppresses melatonin production for more than twice as long as other light wavelengths. This interference can have a significant effect on health, creating problems with the cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems, disturbing mood, and compromising cognitive function. When your rhythms are out of whack, you think, feel, and perform below your best—and over time, your health can be put at risk. That is only how technology affects our body, what about our relationships?

In the majority of families, each member has their own phone. Long gone are the corded single-family phone numbers of which you had your conversations in front of each other in the kitchen! With this privacy comes isolation. Each family member in the same room on their own technology “talking” to others by the click of a keyboard/phone or worse… to their corner of the house in completely separate rooms. Many parents have expectations concerning their children and their phones, i.e. time limits, turning off at a certain time, although themselves are on their computers finishing their work from that day, again not interacting with the rest of the family.

It might not seem like it, but our family members (yes, even your teens) are craving our undivided attention! Schedule, YES more scheduling, a family hour of no technology! Maybe an hour doesn’t feel like enough, but let’s all start with one hour. Putting away your technology will mean a lot to your children and it will teach them how to remove themselves from theirs!

The White Knight Effect


Raise your hand if you are 1000 times more comfortable speaking up in defense of someone else than defending yourself. It feels so much better to help someone else weather a storm of emotional abuse than to take care of yourself, right? You get to feel like a Jedi Knight! You are standing up for truth and justice, and being a good friend or relative. It’s a great feeling, right?

Now, raise your hand if you’ve ever done that, only to have the other person turn to you and tell you to stop “white knighting” them, get angry with you for stepping in, or otherwise appear unappreciative of your efforts.

But...but I’m trying to help! You may find yourself thinking, as confusion, anger, and embarrassment rush through you. I wish to God someone would defend me, but this person doesn’t seem to appreciate what I’m offering them by stepping in for them. What’s wrong here?

The White Knight effect

On the surface, it seems like it should be obvious: you support someone, and they should show appreciation and gratitude. But people don’t always respond the way we expect them to. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we make a mistake or overstep in a relationship. When we make an offer that isn't received like we hope, we may feel humiliated, awkward, and unsure of ourselves. Sometimes, the problem is that we’ve fallen into a particular role that can have a particular effect: the White Knight Effect.

According to UrbanDictionary.com, the phrase “white knighting” is most commonly associated with online discussion forum behaviors, anti-feminism rhetoric, and/or social manipulation designed to make oneself appear more virtuous than one really is. In the context of this article, the closest parallel is that of forum activity. In the murky world of online chat rooms, community forums, and posting boards, “white knighting” refers to a third party jumping in to defend someone in an online argument. The white knight often does so without fully understanding the context of the disagreement, and generally without the request or desire for such aid from either of the original parties.

In real-life relationships, white knighting may look more like trying to defend your partner when her abusive mother starts gaslighting, belittling, or putting her down. You may try to defend her by telling her mother to back off and leave her alone, or by later (in private) telling your partner how wrong it was for her mother to say those things. Your intentions are good - you know what it feels like to be verbally abused, and you would have given anything to have someone tell you the other person was in the wrong. But when you speak up, your partner gets angry. She says you’re out of line, and that you are making her choose between you and her mother. What’s going on here?

Intercession vs interference

If your partner is not ready to acknowledge abusive behavior as abusive, your intercession may be less support than interference. For you, the abuse survivor who has already been through the painful process of really seeing things clearly for the first time, it seems obvious. But remember, there was probably a time in your life when you accepted abusive behavior as normal. When you would have defended your toxic loved one to anyone who criticized them, because you were conditioned to view that relationship as loving. Or because you were afraid of what you would see if you looked at it too closely.

We may become a white knight out of a genuine desire to help. We may also have an ulterior motive of wanting to be viewed as an ally, a supportive friend, or a defender. When there's an ulterior motive, we may hope for some kind of recognition of ourselves as an ally, a defender, or a Good Person. When you feel compelled to step in and defend someone who doesn’t seem to want to defend themselves, ask yourself this: why am I doing this?

This is not an accusation, but an invitation to be curious about what motivates you to step in as a white knight. What parts of you need to step in and take up sword and shield for someone who doesn’t seem ready or willing to do so for themselves?

What are you hoping will happen if you do?

How will you feel if they don’t react to you with appreciation and gratitude?

Supporting vs superseding

“But Amy,” you say, “what if they need someone to speak up for them to realize they can do so for themselves? Should I just leave them to be berated and cut down without saying anything?” No, you don’t have to simply watch someone get beaten down and walk away with your hands in your pockets. But you also don’t need to be their white knight in order to be a supportive and caring loved one.

There are many ways to show support. I am a big fan of asking the other person how they would like you to support them. That way, you affirm their autonomy instead of assuming that worked for you will feel the same for them. So when you become aware of a narcissistic or toxic dynamic between someone you love and their relative, boss, friend, etc, try something like this:

“Hey sis, Dad was pretty hard on you at the family reunion today. Do you want to talk about it? I’m here if you do, but we don’t have to if you’d rather not.”

“Honey, how does it feel for you when your mom comments on our parenting choices? Is there any way you’d like me to respond when she says you’re not being a good dad?”

“I noticed that when your boyfriend got mad at you, you went quiet and kind of shrank into yourself. How can I support you when that happens?”

You get the idea - ask the other person what would feel supportive for them. And resist the urge to correct them if their response doesn’t align with how you’d like to support them. If you ask and then correct or ignore their response, you supersede their right, privilege, and responsibility to make decisions about their own relationships. Even with the kindest and most loving of intentions, this is not support.

Taking care of your triggers

Seeing someone else suffer abuse without speaking up for themselves may push your buttons. It may remind you of your own painful memories. Be mindful of your triggers, because they may influence how you support your loved ones more than you expect.

Take a step back and invite curiosity toward the parts of you that want to be someone's white knight. Gentle, compassionate curiosity can help shed light on the why’s and what if’s that guide your decisions to intercede or not.

Maybe you have a part that is angry with you for suffering abuse for so long instead of speaking up sooner. Send yourself grace and forgiveness for not being ready sooner.

Or perhaps you have a part that feels rejected when someone doesn't want you to defend them. Honor your good intentions while reminding yourself that we all have the right to make our own choices.

Maybe part of you is angry with the other person for being blind to the narcissism you see so clearly. If that is so, remember that you were once blind, too. And remember that you can forgive yourself for being blind.

When you were ready - when they are ready - you can see what is really there. But no one can be ready until they are. Now how’s that for some Jedi wisdom?