I was sitting on the toilet when I heard barking. It was coming from the building behind mine, the sound traveling through the window in my shower.
There were multiple voices. One frantic and high pitched — a smaller dog, and one low, loud, and unceasing — a sound that means danger. A woman’s howls added to the dissonance, “Oh my God, please stop!” repeating like a terrible mantra. The owner of the small dog.
The barks turned to screams — both of the smaller dog and his owner — and the larger voice became quiet. It’s hard to bark with a mouthful of Pomeranian.
I climbed onto the tub ledge. I could see nothing but trees but knew I could be heard from there, having screamed at neighbors having sex or playing music during my more unspiritual moments.
“Please stop, no!” the woman’s voice continued. It appeared that she had frozen in place. The attacking dog kept coming. Her dog did not have a chance.
“Lady,” I bellowed. “That dog attacking yours does not care if you say please! It is not going to stop! You need to kick it to save your dog! ”
“Shut up you stupid b * tch!” She snapped. “I’m trying!”
Good, I thought. Feeling judged has kicked her from freeze to flight.
“Lady! Your dog is going to die. You need to kick the dog, your dog is going to die! Kick the dog! Kick it! ”
After one of those moments that seem as long as 2020, she kicked the dog. The barking turned to whimpers. Her dog was still alive. A neighbor snapped a photo of the attacking dog, his white snout soaked red with blood.
My phone rang. It was my property manager. I felt the familiar hole in my stomach. I was sure she was going to be angry with me.
“You just saved that dog’s life,” she said. “I can not believe I just sat here frozen. What quick thinking. ”
Wait, what? Oh yes, I’m an adult. The property manager is not my mother. I’m not a child. I was not in trouble for pointing out that something needed to happen or asserting myself. This was the first time I had done this without a backlash or abandoning myself after the fact by backing down on what I had said.It was a corrective experience.
My heart rate back to baseline, I went through the events again. How had I not frozen or dissociated when I heard a tiny dog being savaged and could not even see the severity? How had I not gotten completely derailed when I was called a stupid b * itch?
That’s when a feeling spread through me that I am just beginning to get used to — pride in how I conducted myself.
Did I just DEAR MAN a dog’s life? I wondered. I did not have to stop, text my therapist, write out what I planned to say. The moment had called for action, and I had acted. Practicing the skills had turned them automatic.
DEAR MAN is an interpersonal effectiveness skill. Interpersonal effectiveness is one of the four modules of dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT. DBT was created by Marsha Linehan with the aim of treating borderlines (starting with her). It has since been found effective for many other trauma-informed mental health issues, such as substance use disorder and PTSD. It is arguably (I say and my therapist agrees) the most difficult. The other three modules — mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation — can be practiced without variables. Variables are other people.
DEAR MAN is an acronym, a template for communication. The DEAR refers to what you say, and the MAN refers to how you act while saying it.
D describes the situation. “That dog attacking your dog does not care if you say please.”
E expresses your feelings and opinions. “It’s not going to stop.”
A is for asserting yourself by either asking for what you want or saying no. “You need to kick it.”
R for reinforce is explaining the positive or negative effects of what you are asking for. “If you do not kick the dog, your dog is going to die.”
M is to stay mindful, or focused on your goals. I want the lady to kick the dog so it stops attacking her dog.
Keeping the outcome as the priority allows me to ignore attacks like “Shut up you stupid b * tch.” In DBT I learned that every interaction has three priorities and it’s helpful to weigh them. They are outcome, relationship, and self-respect. The outcome was the only thing that mattered here. M is also where we make like a broken record. Repeat, ignore, repeat.
Appear confident. This was easy — she could not see me. But my voice did not waver.
Negotiate. This is about being willing to give to get. In this case, ignoring her attacks and letting the situation be over when it was over.
Pomeranian in leaves.
Source: Alvan Nee / Unsplash
As I practice DEAR MAN, I show my wounded inner child that she can advocate for herself effectively. I prove to myself that I can get through a bad situation without making it worse — I can even make it better.