March 14, 2016
By Michelle Leybman, PhD, Psychologist
My oldest friend and I have always been able to talk about anything and everything. Whenever we talk about the Capital B “Big issues” of life, we always come to the same conclusion: almost everything comes down to balance. Is it better to take care of yourself, or to focus on giving to others? Balance. Should I plan my life out and focus on long-term goals, or live fully in the moment and see where I end up? Balance. Not moderation, but balance.
This idea – that most everything comes down to balance – is similar to one of the main ideas behind Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). DBT is a relatively new therapy that was developed by Marsha Linehan to treat people who have trouble knowing how to cope with extremely intense emotions, who act on impulses and urges more than they want to, who often get into unstable or chaotic relationships, and even those who are chronically suicidal. If you’re interested in the basics of DBT, there’s a ton of information available online. I recommend reading this as an introduction: What is DBT. Or watching this brief video: What is Dialectical behavior therapy for adolescents (DBT)?
Instead of covering the ABCs again here, I’m going to write more about the conceptual backbone of DBT with the hope that it might help you see the forest amongst the trees.
As a therapist who uses a lot of DBT, one of the questions I’m asked most often is this: What the eff does dialectical mean? Fair enough! I had no idea what it meant until I started practicing DBT. Even now I find it to be an incredibly complex idea and my understanding of it is changing all the time. That’s probably what makes it so interesting.
A dialectic is the tension that exists between two opposites. It’s the idea that any one position contains within it the opposite position. You can’t have good without bad, or all without none. Because all things contain within them their opposites, this also means that there are no absolute truths. Instead, things that appear to be opposites can both be true at the same time. The easiest way to explain this is through examples. In DBT, we assume that clients are always doing the very best that they can, and at the same time, we also assume that they need to try harder. These two things appear to be opposite, and yet they’re both true. In DBT we are constantly working towards helping people both accept themselves as fully as possible, and pushing them to change themselves and their lives. Being dialectical means holding all of these seemingly opposite truths and allowing them to both exist. It means that in moving forward, we aim not to find the grey areas between black and white, but rather to find the plaid that allows both black and white to exist at the same time. Finding these plaid zones is what keep us from getting stuck when we’re trying to change and grow.
This idea of dialectics is so abstract, that even if you agree with it on an intellectual level, it can feel overwhelming to put into practice. So, I’m going to let you in on a few tips, taken from DBT of course, that could help you bring more dialectical thinking into your daily living.
Although the words “balance” and “dialectic” differ, they come down to the same thing – finding the truth in perspectives that differ from your own, and practicing what you don’t do. Try bringing your attention to these things next time you’re feeling stuck; the results could surprise you.
Koerner, K. (2012). Doing dialectical behavior therapy: A practical guide. Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. M., Armstrong, H. E., Suarez, A., Allmon, D., & Heard, H. L. (1991). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of chronically parasuicidal borderline patients.Archives of general psychiatry, 48(12), 1060-1064.