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What on Earth Does 'Dialectical' Mean?!?!

The term Dialectical Behavioural Therapy often confuses people. It's not immediately obvious what this means- so let me shed some light!

The term dialectical, or dialectic' refers to a situation where 2 distinct opposite positions are true at the same time.

I'll give you an example I often use to explain this...

Say there's a chocolate cake on the table in front of me. A dialectic could be, 'I want to eat the cake', and, 'I don't want to eat the cake'.

These are opposites, but can both be true at the same time.

I want to eat the cake because I love chocolate, I am hungry & it looks delicious.

I don't want to eat the cake because I am trying to cut down on sugar, & I ate cake yesterday.

So it is true that I both want to eat the cake & don't want to eat the cake- even though these are complete opposites!

So how does this translate into effective therapy?

In DBT we explore how we get 'stuck' in dialectics in our lives & how this can cause us problems.

When we are stuck in a dialectic we may be doing any or all of the following:

  1. Feeling we have to 'pick a side' & fully commit to one position only (often leading to internal struggle & a feeling of deprivation)

  2. Swinging wildly between both extremes, never spending any time in 'middle ground'

  3. Shaming ourselves for being uncertain & not being strong enough to do what we think we 'should'

Let's look at the cake example again, & how being stuck in this dialectic might play out.

If I felt I needed to 'pick a side' with the cake dialectic, I might agonise for hours about what to do. I might go back & forth about my decision & only see 2 possible options- eat cake or don't. What I'm not recognising is there is a ton of 'grey area' that I could consider.

If I were to swing wildly between the extremes, I either eat the whole cake, or eat none of it. If I eat the whole cake I will probably feel sick & guilty. If I eat none of the cake I might feel deprived, resentful & hungry! Neither of these extremes are good.

If I were to shame myself for being uncertain about eating cake, that may have a negative affect on my self esteem & make me feel terrible about myself. What I'm not recognising is that feeling conflicted is normal!!! Being in '2-minds' is okay!

So if I recognise I am stuck in a dialectic about this cake, then I can validate I am in '2-minds'

. I can then look for a 'middle ground', or 'grey-area' approach. For example:

  1. I could eat a small piece give the rest away- share the cake!

  2. I could not have cake today, but save some for a treat tomorrow.

  3. I could decide that Fridays are cake days, & every Friday look forward to a piece of cake of my choosing!

  4. You get the idea- lots of other possible options outside of the 2 extremes:)

Some common dialectics people in my therapy rooms talk about are:

  1. I want to change AND I want things to stay the same

  2. I want to be close with people AND I want to be independent

  3. I need to work AND I need to rest

By raising our awareness of dialectics in our lives, we can identify middle ground approaches that we might not have previously considered, or been able to put into practice.

The truth about life is that things are not black or white- there are many shades of grey! It is in the grey area we can find balance & sustainability for ourselves:)

So here's a challenge for you...

Take a look at the things you are struggling with currently in your life. Are you stuck in a dialectic of some sort? What might middle ground look like? What small steps could you make to get out of the extremes & towards more grey area?

Good luck! Want more help? Feel free to contact us about an appointment, or participation in any of our programs. We'd love to help!

Wishing you the best of mental health:)


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