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The Mental Health Technique That Will Save Your Relationships After a Protest

It’s totally normal to be extra combative or defensive when you get home from a rally full of adrenaline, but this exercise will ensure you can still communicate in a way that’s productive

Ever since I’ve started protesting, I’ve been coming in hot with my every interaction. Whether I’m going off about Tom Cotton’s NYT op-ed while my roommates watch Real Housewives or fighting with my family about why people loot, I’ve been a bit much. Even with friends I agree with, since I started protesting, I’ve begun arguing for sport.

According to Patricia Celan, a medical doctor and psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada, this makes sense. While the act of protest is an exercise of our First Amendment rights, from a clinical perspective, it’s also a collective response to trauma — and that’s hard to turn off when you get home. “A traumatized person typically responds with emotional outbursts in order to express that their needs haven’t been met,” Celan tells me. 

Numerous techniques can help — such a tactical breathing or bilateral stimulation — but when it comes to connecting with others, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) may be the best mental workout. Originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder, DBT is an intense form of cognitive behavioral therapy, a short-term, goal-oriented type of counseling that corrects thought patterns that prevent optimal functioning. Since DBT was developed in the late 1980s, it’s been found to be an effective treatment for depression, substance abuse, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation and traumatic brain injuries. 

It’s also very useful with something known as interpersonal effectiveness — i.e., how you communicate with others when you’ve been traumatized.

There is, too, one specific interpersonal effectiveness practice clinicians swear by: DEAR MAN. It sounds like the beginning of a shitty open letter, but DEAR MAN is a mnemonic device that can be used to walk you through the steps of interacting with another human. “People can use DEAR MAN any time they want to make a request or respond to a request — not necessarily in the context of conflict, but to prevent conflict,” Celan explains. “It’s basically a way to communicate effectively on the regular.”

Here’s what all those letters stand for…

D = Describe. State the facts of what’s happening in that moment, while leaving emotions out of it. You’ll get to them later; what’s most important is to establish the terms of the discussion. If you’re talking about the urgency of protesting police brutality and your roommate is talking about COVID-19, common ground is unlikely because you’re on different islands. Describe what you’re trying to accomplish with as much detail as possible until you and the other person are on the same page. 

E = Express. This is where you can get into your feelings via “I statements.” If you’re arguing with your partner about whether it’s safe to go to a protest amid a pandemic, instead of accusing them of being unsupportive, tell them you don’t feel like they have your back. Couples therapists use “I statements” frequently because they’re an organic way to take accountability, which can prevent defensiveness or anger.

A = Assert. Ask for what you need, or set a boundary for yourself. If your mom doesn’t understand the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, it might be a request to read a specific article, watch a documentary or listen to a podcast that may provide historical context. If a family member refuses to accept new information or stay within the terms of the argument, a boundary can be anything from ending the conversation to taking some time apart from each other. What matters is that you express what you want as well as what you won’t put up with.

R = Reinforce. The other person typically needs to understand the upside for them. For instance, if the mayor redistributes police funding into economic opportunities, your unemployed friend might be down to vote for him. If your partner accompanies you to a rally, it could bring you closer together. If your mom reads up on the history of American policing, she might be less uncomfortable when you bring up defunding cops. 

As for the M-A-N…

M = Stay Mindful. Mindfulness keeps your focus on the task at hand — successfully communicating your feelings and intentions. There are a number of easy mindfulness exercises that you can engage in mid-conversation if your mind begins to stray, such as focusing on an object, sound or smell in the room. “When people veer off the template, they can run into trouble,” Celan explains. “If they feel entitled to receive what they’re asking for, or if they become emotional and start attacking the other person rather than using ‘I statements,’ the concept falls apart and can turn into conflict.”

A = Appear Confident. A lot of the conversations people are having right now are awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s crucial to communicate from a place of power. So keep your head up, make eye contact and speak clearly, or postpone the discussion until you can.

N = Negotiate. Be open to collaborating and allowing the other person to propose alternatives. If your roommate is worried about their coronavirus risks with you attending protests, be open to self-quarantining in your room and wearing a mask in common areas. If your boyfriend refuses to accept that racism is a problem even though he claims he’s “not racist,” take him up on his offer to take a break.

Those who may be arguing with people in their lives over COVID-19, concerns about racism or other issues are at risk of burning bridges over disagreements,” Celan warns. “Before doing that, take a step back, plan out how you’re going to have this discussion following the DEAR MAN format and observe how much more smoothly your conversation goes.”