“Life is not about being right, it is about being effective.” – Marsha Linehan, Ph.D.

Dr. Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), contends that it is far more important in life to be effective than it is to be right. At a recent DBT emotion regulation training event that I attended, Dr. Linehan spoke passionately about this topic.  She explained that in her own work as a researcher, she is not “attached” to any of her DBT skills or techniques.  Rather, she wants to do what works (as indicated by research).

Many of us get very attached to the way that we would like things to be or the way that we believe we “need” things to be.  When we are so attached to the outcome in this way, we easily lose sight of doing what works.  The trick is that “what works” is often uncomfortable or unpleasant in the moment.  But, what works gets you closer to your goals.

For example, many people are anxious about speaking in public – it may feel scary, unnatural, and uncomfortable for those with this type of anxiety.  The natural inclination of someone like this may be to avoid situations involving public speaking at all costs.  As McKay, Wood, and Brantley (2007) explain, “sometimes in order to get what you want, you have to modify what you feel like doing, especially if you struggle with overwhelming emotions.”

At Dr. Linehan’s recent DBT workshop, she told a story of a patient of hers who had to learn the hard way about doing what’s effective.  Below is an adapted and summarized version of the story that she relayed at the training event:

A patient was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and was experiencing severe physical pain.  She had a powerful narcotic pain prescription that she was requesting from the nurse.  When the nurse responded to her request, she explained that the patient would have to take Tylenol first, and if the Tylenol did not solve her problem, she could have her narcotic pain prescription in 30 minutes.

The patient was furious with the nurse, demanding the prescription that she was “allowed to have.”  This back and forth exchange with the nurse continued for at least 45 minutes, with the patient continuing to persist in receiving her pain prescription (because she knew she was “right”).  Suddenly, the young woman realized that if she had simply accepted the nurse’s stipulation that she take the Tylenol first and wait 30 minutes, she would have already received her pain prescription 15 minutes ago.

In other words, if she had only let go of her need to be right, and instead done what was effective (i.e., complied with the nurse), she would have actually gotten the result that she wanted all along!  Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy.  We can sabotage our own best interest in our insistence on “making a point” or “being right.”  In the end, it is often more important that you are effective and get the results that are in your best interest.

How to Do What’s Effective

The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook explains that in order to do what’s effective, you must do the following:

  • Be mindful of your thoughts and feelings.
  • Avoid judging the situation or your thoughts/feelings/actions.
  • Choose actions that are both appropriate and designed to move you closer to your goals.
  • Do the best you can in the moment.

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Linehan, M. (June 6-7, 2011). Updates to emotion regulation and crisis survival skills in dialectical behavior therapy. Austin, TX: Behavior Tech, LLC.

McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Infinite staircase revisited by fdecomite / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on June 20, 2011 at 9:24 am

    This photo is a real mind-bender! My brain keeps trying to make sense of it, yet my eyes just continue moving in circles!

    I love your point about sabotaging our own best interest in an effort to be right. It’s hard to admit, but I have certainly fallen into this trap at times.

    Sounds like a fascinating conference!

    • Laura on June 30, 2011 at 5:05 pm

      James – This photo made me think of the ways in which we can so easily get “lost” in attempts to get our way or to be right. When we get so caught up in satisfying the ego in this way, we often lose sight of doing what’s effective/truly in our best interest. I find it helpful to remember that needing to win or be right is usually about satisfying the ego in some way, rather than about doing what is truly effective or promoting harmony. I think that we all fall prey to sabotaging our own best interest at times. What matters is that we are willing to recognize when we do this and hopefully become more mindful of these tendencies in the future. Thank you for your comment!

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