By Mary Stathos
Illustrations by Ali Mullins
I do not think that I am alone in saying that when I am feeling down, I begin to feel very stuck. I feel trapped. It can feel hard to imagine that life will ever get better. It can be hard to imagine my own capacity to allow myself to get better.
How do we visualize ourselves in a way that allows us to get back in control of our emotions?
Imagine you are in a house. The house has three floors with a window on each floor, a basement and a chimney. There is no door. This is your house and only your house. You can’t get a new house. All of your experiences have accumulated and will continue to accumulate in this house. In order to begin, we all have to acknowledge that we are the house and everything inside.
Now, when things are bad, when you are self-loathing, wishing you were dead, experiencing extreme emotions or acting in ways that are unhealthy for yourself, you are in the basement. The basement is on fire. There is no way to put out this fire. The rest of the house will always be safe from this fire. Now, I imagine that everyone reading this will say okay, why would I stay in a basement that is on fire when I have a whole rest of the house that is not on fire and will never be on fire? Think about the “This is fine” meme. That is what happens to you. Your actions and your behaviors becomes safe and comforting. It is easier to live in the fire and feel like it is fine than to acknowledge that something is wrong. In accepting that you are living in this hellfire basement, you might want to move upstairs. So we leave the comfort of our basement and go to the first floor.
Smoke rises, so this floor is not easy to be on. It is new and different. You don’t keep a lot on this floor because everything reminds you of the past, of painful events. On this floor, you are in quiet despair. You know that something is wrong and that you need to fix it, you are out of the fire but you do not feel safe.
It feels so easy to go back down to the basement and keep pretending everything is fine, and you might. But you might not. Instead, you might start to feel the emotions that you were pushing away down in the basement. You might look out the window and catch a glimpse of the outside world and realize that there is hope. It is not easy to be here so if you decide to stay, you will also decide to work hard to get up the staircase to the second floor.
When you move to the second floor, you begin to use the skills that you learned on the first floor to allow yourself to feel happy again. You experience normal happiness and unhappiness for the first time in what feels like forever. You push yourself to reach out to the people you may have hurt, or maintain healthier and happier relationships. You might start a new hobby or begin to enjoy old ones again. Things still feel sad but there are times where things start to feel happy too. You start to appreciate that balance. You start to hold on to the positive experiences and you can acknowledge that although the basement might still feel safe to you, that it is a long way back down, and that you have worked so hard to get to where you are.
Finally, when you have worked so hard on the second floor to feel comfortable, to stop feeling like you need to be in the basement to experience your life, you make your way to the top floor. On the top floor, there is a chimney, we are no longer holding onto our strong emotions, instead we have somewhere else to release them. Here, you have our life worth living. This is not your perfect life or a utopia. It is not even necessarily your best self, though this is where you would be able to reach that. It is simply a life that you enjoy and that you feel is worth continuing to build. Here, you are able to feel happy without worrying about the sadness that may come at another time, without feeling guilt about enjoying yourself despite the bad things that have happened to you. You begin to feel complete and feel a desire to grow.
However, as with all people, you still have your basement. Your basement will always be on fire. You cannot put it out or erase that part of you. Instead, you learn to embrace it and embrace the work you have done to get here. You understand that everyone has a basement, and that everyone’s basement has things hidden away in it. Basements hold the foundation of your home, they give your house strength and stability. All of the parts of your home are important and they hold you up where you are now, with a window that looks high up out into the world.
Just like in real life, we cannot always control what happens to the world around us. When a really bad storm comes, maybe a tornado, the only place we are able to go might be the basement. And just like in real life, storms pass and this time, you know that and you know the way up the stairs even through the fire and smoke. Even if you do end up in the basement again, you’ll always know how to get back up.
Adapted from Dr. Charles Swenson, author of DBT Principles in Action: Acceptance, Change, and Dialectics (Guilford Press, 2016).
DBT House of Treatment was created by Marsha M. Linehan.
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