DBT Skills to Know - How to Think and Act Dialectically

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is, at its core, founded upon principles of Dialectical thinking, which involves an integration of two foundational opposites: acceptance and change. 

Learning to think and act in a dialectical manner can open up your thought process and increase your awareness of the different nuances in the world around you, rather than allowing you to exist in extreme black and whites. Extreme highs and lows are what drive many of the mental health conditions DBT is used to treat, so the idea that embracing gray areas can help those suffering from certain conditions to create greater peace in their day to day reality simply makes sense. 

Letting our thoughts drive our emotions and actions can be a dangerous game. Oftentimes, this is where those with significant mental health struggles find themselves in trouble. It’s easy to get absorbed with a feeling of anxiety due to abandonment, to dwell on thoughts relative to the opinions of others, or to fixate on the idea you’re unwanted or unworthy of love. Thoughts can drive an excessive amount of fear and anxiety over our jobs, our relationships, our identity, and so much more. Our thoughts have a lot of power. 

When spiraling down a rabbit hole driven by escalating thought patterns, it’s easy to focus on the negatives or one potential outcome we are afraid of or concerned about, rather than considering all of the other variables involved. In most cases this type of spiraling is driven by trauma, or survival instinct (which keeps us from repeating choices and putting ourselves in situations that can hurt us). Because our brains are wired to protect us, a sense of fear, imminent doom, risk, or worry can build a sense of danger to an illogical level and cripple us from making decisions, trying new things, opening up and being vulnerable, etc. 

This wash cycle of thoughts and feelings is where dialectical thinking comes into play. Rather than let our thoughts play out toward catastrophic projection, dialectical thinking promotes the idea of viewing our situation from multiple perspectives, thereby bringing depth and dimension into our processing. Dialectical thinking focuses on the theory that in order to understand things to a greater degree, we have to first embrace their opposites. 

Taking the time to look at our situation in different ways allows us to move beyond hyper rigidity in our thought patterns which can drive negative emotions to come to a head. It brings perspective to our lives and relationships and can diminish the anxiety we feel over projected negative outcomes. 

When we learn to accept that every experience is comprised of a unique amount of both negative and positive parts, this can lead us to identify (even in the worst of life’s ups and downs) the potential positives in every situation. A great example would be the end of a relationship: while this may lead you to spiral into anxiety over being alone forever, concern about your value, etc. it can also be a time to reflect on what is most important to you, and to consider what you’ve learned from your partner during the relationship about yourself, the world, and what you will and will not accept in future relationships. 

Dialectical thinking can create freedom from intensely negative emotions such as resentment, bitterness, and anger. When you hone your ability to find new ways to view situations, it’s easier to detach from these types of feelings through the process of dialectical exploration. 

A prime example of dialectical thinking in action (continuing with the breakup analogy) would be that we may step back and consider that our counterpart is suffering, or acting in a way that is best for them rather than out of an intent to hurt us. We might recognize that our interpretation of their leaving is inclined to be damaging if we let our thoughts flow without considering other viewpoints, and that in reality they may be leaving for reasons far outside our control. We might develop a sense of compassion and loss, rather than fixating on anger, resentment, and fear of being alone. 

Dialectical thinking promotes a “flexibility” of thought processes that loosens the grip of negative emotions and choices in our lives and lightens our emotional burdens. 

Another great way dialectical thinking can impact your feelings and choices is that it re-introduces a sense of control into your life. When our emotions spiral, we feel out of control which can lead to fear and anxiety. When we explore instead the peace that comes with a flexible perspective or mindset, we are able to detach enough to recognize the things we can control (our thoughts, feelings, and reactions) and to let go of what we can’t (the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others). 

Dialectical thinking does not imply never recognizing or embracing difficult emotions, but instead the ability to see both sides of the coin. Honing the skill of recognizing negative emotions and purposefully exploring their opposites brings greater critical thinking skills, more peace, a sense of control, greater emotional regulation, and can result in less wasted time fixating on the negatives in our lives. Rather than living at the whim of impulse, we can instead approach every situation with purpose. 

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