How to challenge destructive or self-destructive behaviour
5 March 2022
How do we react when someone close to us is behaving in a destructive or self-destructive way? The temptation may be to not say anything because we are frightened of upsetting or making them angry. But then the behaviour continues and we may feel our resentment grow or look for ways out of the relationship.
A good approach in these situations is the SET technique, described in the book I Hate You - please don’t leave me*. This approach was developed for people seeking to challenge destructive behaviour by people with borderline personality disorder, such as suicide threats, verbal or physical abuse or substance abuse.
But SET can also be used more generally when we need to challenge someone close to us.
The appproach seeks to combine support and empathy for the other person with a challenge over their behaviour.
SET stands for “Support Empathy Truth”, and it’s important to include all three elements in order for the challenge to be effective.
Support - this is the first part and involves saying something supportive from an “I” perspective. This could be something like, “I’m concerned about you” or “I want to help you”.
Empathy - this is a statement that acknowledges the other person’s experience and takes the form of a ‘“you” statement. Examples include, “I imagine the work stress you’ve been under lately has been really hard,” or “I can see it’s really frustrating for you when you feel people aren’t doing what you want.”
Truth - this is the challenge to the person’s behaviour. It communicates that there is a major problem and the person needs to take respnsibility for doing something about it. Without the truth statement, the person may believe that their behaviour is being accepted. Examples of truth statements include a description of the destructive or self-destructive behaviour and what others have done to help, concluding with the question, “What are you going to do about it?”
The three elements of SET are necessary because without support and empathy statements the person who is being challenged may feel misunderstood or not supported. But if the support and empathy statements are not also accompanied by the truth statement, the person may not realise that their behaviour needs to change.
* I Hate You - please don’t leave me, Kreisman, Jerold & Straus, Hal, (2010), Tarcher Pedigree, New York.
Image creative commons licence https://tinyurl.com/3pujkkxd