Improve the Moment: Create Meaning

Distress Tolerance Strategies: Improving the Moment by Creating Meaning

Some of the techniques for improving the moment are cognitive techniques, that is, changing our feelings by changing how we think about ourselves and our situation. The way we think about our situation and ourselves in it has a lot to do with how we feel.

Finding or creating meaning can be very helpful. It is not always easy, and may take some time and work, but it can be very helpful and comforting in a difficult situation.

Finding meaning is like making lemonade out of lemons, which Marsha Linehan talks about in the manual. Making lemonade out of lemons involves taking some things not very tasty, sour, and doing something with them (squeezing them and adding sugar and water to the juice) to get something that is very tasty. This concept can be hard to accept. I know that in my early days of DBT, I wasn't very happy about this idea. But if you think about it, you can think of other situations where you "make lemonade out of lemons," make something good out of something not so good. And we do this to make ourselves more comfortable, to turn a bad situation around.

Think about:

  • being snowbound
  • being stuck in the mud in your friend's driveway
  • burning a batch of cookies
  • losing the money for your Christmas gifts

  • What could you do to turn those situations around?

    Finding or Creating MEANING:

    There are a number of ways that we can find or create meaning in our difficult situations. I will tell you of an experience I had several years ago. I had been in a several month long depression that didn't seem to be going away. I felt desperate and hopeless. My DBT instructor suggested that I try to find some meaning in my situation.

    In doing this, I read the book "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp and wrote about his struggle to find meaning there. This book can be very helpful to people struggling with this question, and it was very helpful to me. I highly recommend it.

    What I came up with for meaning in my situation was that I was doing the best that I could to get through it. I said this to myself many times a day, "I am doing my best to get through a difficult situation," and it gave me hope and something to live for. Someone else in the same situation could have come up with something different.

    You don't have to believe that there is a purpose to your suffering. If you have religious or spiritual beliefs, you may feel this way. But if you don't, you can still create meaning or purpose in your suffering.


    What do you think the meaning or purpose of suffering is?

    Do you think there is a meaning?

    How can you create a meaning?


  • Try focusing on the positive aspects of your suffering.

    For example, are you seeing something more clearly? Are you learning something? Are you letting go of painful memories or feelings? Has this brought you closer to friends or family members? Are you preparing for a change in your life? Are you closer to nature? Have you discovered a book or a poem that helped you?
  • Find something that you can change to something positive. Make lemonade out of lemons.

    If you feel like yelling, try singing, loudly. Focus your angry energy into art (big splashes of paint on paper), on sculpture (pounding clay), photography (taking pictures of what makes you upset or what reminds you of it). Write about your sad or angry or painful thoughts. If you need company, cook dinner for a friend or go on a picnic. Come up with your own ways to make something positive of your distress or a little piece of it.
  • Remember that by trying to find positive things about our distress, we are not denying that things are bad, or trying to say that distressing things are not distressing. We are trying to Improve the Moment, to find some things that help us feel better in the moment.
  • Remember, listen to or read about spiritual values. This may be religion - some of you may have a religious background or religious beliefs. These may help you to find some meaning in your distress. For example, "God is seeing me through this."

    There are other forms of spirituality. Some people find it in nature. You may be comforted, as I have been, by seeing that the natural world keeps  right on going, no matter what happens.

    Others may connect with a cosmic being, a creative force in the universe, animal spirits, a higher purpose in life. Open yourself to whatever it is you believe and look for the meaning that it gives you, the purpose, the focus and balance.
  • When you find something, or create something, that gives meaning to you in your distress, hold on to it. Say it over to yourself many times a day. You will find it comforting. Remember it if you should need it again.