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Observing Limits

A major tenet of DBT is the concept of observing limits. We teach the Observe skill in our Core Mindfulness Skills, and an extension of that is to observe one’s limits. It is a skill that is expected to be practiced by the primary therapist, the client, the group co-leaders, the team, and ultimately generalized into real-world action.

Limits are important. In the natural world, limits keep the oceans from overflowing onto dry land and our thoughts from spilling out of our mouths. For example, Hashem created nature, and even His miracles consistently occur within the confines of nature. Further, prior to the creation of the world, there was no limits on G-d and He took up every bit of existence. Each day of creation, therefore, was essentially another limit on Him. On the seventh day, He rested from hiding behind creation, so G-d is easier to find on Shabbos.

In relationships, limits enable healthy spaces in which each person can cultivate a sense of self while interacting with others. Many people who come to DBT struggle with helpful limits in relationships. Sometimes people call this “poor boundaries. When DBT therapists observe and communicate their own limits, clients learn to observe and communicate their own limits as well, and to respect the limits of others.

DBT veers from the oft-repeated refrain of “healthy boundaries” and instead continually repeats the phrase, “observe limits” Why the emphasis on observation of limits?

Most modern educators would agree that the best education standards are no longer one-size-fits-all. Instruction and assessment are differentiated in order to meet the needs of individuals. While operating under core academic and value-driven assumptions, educators recognize that individual students have individual needs and, with some thought, those needs can be met while maintaining overarching institutional goals and requirements.

So too with limits in DBT. DBT recognizes the immense value of limits; limits guide the client toward reaching their treatment goals within a therapeutic relationship that is actually sustainable. Limits also teach clients how to have healthy relationships with other people, because all healthy relationships function within limits. And, at the same time, arbitrary limits are less helpful. If a limit was an arbitrary rule, like stopping at a red light at 2 AM (when there is no traffic) then it would prevent the relationship from being functional (what’s the point, you don’t actually care). Real relationships don’t have 2am red lights.

Most of life is not black and white. What makes life exciting and vibrant is that we need to be in the moment, to feel it. And in those moments, we need to assess ourselves and our surroundings to make the most informed decision on how to proceed. We need to observe what works and what doesn’t work and communicate that rather than setting random limits that set relationships, including therapeutic and non-therapeutic relationships, up to fail.

When we “observe limits” in DBT, we are practicing doing exactly that. Observing limits enables one to consider the core values that the limit represents, consider oneself and one’s surroundings consistently, and confidently reach a thought-through decision.

Life is not black and white. So why should therapy be?


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