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The Elephant and the Rider – The Integration of the Divided Self

dbt for addiction

             I believe we are comprised of the interaction of opposing forces from within.  Often these forces are seemingly in juxtaposition to one another and we are left feeling like we have to choose one part over the other, or even worse, that we have no choice at all. There are many different lenses with which to look at this divided self; our emotions verses logic, our mind verses body, our controlled or learned responses verses our automatic or intuitional responses.  Unfortunately, all too often, we send ourselves a message of either “having to choose between” or “I have no control over” these opposing forces.  Our internal dialog then is communicating there must be something wrong with us or at least a part of us.  When we feel as though we have to choose between or have lost control over these parts of ourselves we naturally then judge, shame, and fear ourselves and begin to feel fragmented as people.  Our clients come to us struggling to navigate their worlds.  Their minds and bodies are suffering from addiction and their personalities have become fragmented before they have even had the chance to fully develop. They are suffering from the powerlessness of the divided self. 

            Through the use of a DBT informed model of practice we can begin to break down this fallacy of having to choose and of having no control by teaching our clients that they can know and accept all the parts of themselves and that in so doing they can learn how to live in the “in between of things.”  That nothing is all good or bad. That each part of them can be used to their betterment.  These forces need not be at war with each other; that it is in the integration of these forces that they can find true soundness of mind and a more sustainable way to affect positive changes in their lives.

            A familiar DBT skill that helps clients conceptualize doing this is the use of the wise mind.  If we allow our emotional mind to guide our actions we end up acting impulsively and often judge our feelings as facts.  On the other hand if we allow only our logical mind to guide our actions we often ignore our intuition and appear cold and detached from the human experience.  The goal then, is to allow both “parts of our mind” to help inform our actions and decision making.  We can hopefully teach our clients to take a non-judgmental stance with themselves.  Through practicing mindfulness, we can teach them to first notice these two sides of themselves and to then learn how to integrate them into the wise mind. 

            As I do this work with our clients I am reminded of an analogy I learned in grad school of the elephant and rider.  The elephant represents our urges, our innate drive for survival, and our emotional reactivity which at times comes with brute force.  The rider represents our analytical mind, our ability to think long term and to problem solve.  Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.  The Elephant’s strength of power and hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength which is the ability to think beyond the moment.  To make progress toward a goal requires the strengths of both.  When Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily. The key to effective change is found in bridging the gap between the divided parts of self.  For we are all have an elephant and a rider within.  If we can teach our clients to tap into this power it will help them trudge along the happy road of destiny.