How to Think and Act Dialectically

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is a well-known and widely regarded, highly effective practice for a wide range of emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal issues. One of the first questions clients often ask is “So what does ‘dialectical’ mean? And why is it such a big part of this type of therapy?”

1. Understand what dialectical means:  

In the most basic sense, dialectical refers to balance between opposites. We often fall into the habit of thinking of things in very “black and white” terms. We either love or hate something. We are either strong or weak. We are either happy or depressed. We either accept and move on, or reject and rebel. Dialectical thinking encourages us to consider that both of these things—which seem like opposites—can coexist, and that they can combine to create a “new” truth. Dialectics uses "AND" instead of "But."

2. Take a flexible stance: 

Dialectics does not accept anything as an absolute. It continuously asks “What is being left out of our understanding of this situation?”, so that both people in a relationship can move into a more open, flexible stance. There is always more than one side to anything that exists. DBT encourages us to find and understand both sides of an equation. 

3. Find a balance between acceptance and change:  

A pillar of DBT is the dialectical stance of balancing acceptance and change. This can be a highly effective place to practice dialectical thinking. Dialectics and DBT teach us that we can accept the way things are; this doesn’t have to mean that we are giving up or “doomed” to be stuck in the same place forever. Rather, it takes the pressure and judgment off yourself and the current situation, giving you motivation to take positive steps towards change. Tell yourself: “I can accept the way things are AND work towards changing my current situation.”

4. Apply dialectical thinking to your life:

So, what are some common examples of dialectical dilemmas— important opposites to balance within your life? Your teenager can crave independence AND still want (and sometimes need) your help. As a parent, you can impose consequences for negative behaviors AND still love, care about, and know what is best for your child. Your feelings and emotions are valid AND you can work on controlling them. You can have an argument with someone AND still be friends with them. Consider, what are some examples of dialectics at work within your life? 

Following these steps, you can begin thinking and acting dialectically. Doing so will give you a new way to respond to your emotions, to your behaviors, or to others in your relationships. This will help you find balance in your life and make changes to improve your life.