What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy? (Pt. 2: Dialectics)
Updated: May 22
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a core concept is that of dialectical thinking. The term dialectics originates in philosophy; but what does this term mean, and how does it relate to DBT? In DBT, dialects refers to holding two seemingly opposing ideas as both true at the same time. We are typically taught that things can either be one way or the other, black or white, they cannot be black and white—can they? Take the example of how we feel when we have a conflict or a fight with someone we love. Maybe we feel at that time, “I am so angry at her!” or even “I hate him!”; however, isn’t it also still true that we love them? How about when we go to an important meeting that we wish we didn’t have to go to, and at the same time we want to go because we know it’s an important responsibility? We can imagine that this thinking strategy works as if to replace a “but” with an “and”, thus giving validation and truth to two potentially contrasting thoughts or emotional experiences.
This ability to think dialectically in DBT can be especially helpful when we’re experiencing emotional struggles. Perhaps we are going through depression and are feeling just terrible. Thinking dialectically may mean we acknowledge that we are feeling quite low and we also feel invested in continuing to work on our mental health. Another example may be that we have an experience of shame or hurt due to our partner’s actions and they had no intention of causing us to feel that way. Maybe our stress just feels overwhelming and we have the thought that we “just can’t take it anymore”, we can choose to accept a dialectical simultaneous truth that we are also willing to keep going and not give up. In all of these cases, both sides can very well be true at the same time. When we feel paralyzed or helpless due to the underlying ambivalence within our seemingly opposing feelings, urges, or thoughts, the skill of dialectical thinking offers a sense of validation and relief. It further teaches us that there needn’t be someone to blame for our emotions, including ourselves.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy includes a fundamental assumption that, “Everyone is doing the best they can, and they can do better.” Can you make sense of this statement? How might this be helpful when experiencing patterns of depressive, anxious, or angry thoughts?
For further exploration into how dialectical thinking in DBT can offer us clarity and relief, feel free to take a look at the following article, "Using DBT to Confront Black-and-White Thinking": https://www.skylandtrail.org/About/Blog/ctl/ArticleView/mid/567/articleId/5658/Using-DBT-to-Confront-Black-and-White-Thinking