I am a child of the 60s. As a college student I demonstrated against the Viet Nam war and for voting rights for black Americans. I sat-in for Roe v. Wade and spoke up for women’s equity in the workplace. I vocally condemned racism and anti-Semitism and marched for Soviet Jewry. And as I grew older, I naively believed that we had advanced so much that I could relax, and that positive momentum would carry us forward. After all, we elected a black President, women’s rights had clearly advanced, reports of anti-Semitism in the U.S. were at an all-time low, there was greater acceptance of diversity in so many realms of society! And then came the rude awakening of the last five years, and my realization that I had been blissfully unaware of all of the hatred and rage at perceived victimization that lurked barely beneath the surface of our society.
Like many of my peers who shared my despair I wondered how to reconcile the advances in human rights that we legitimately made with the real threats to democracy, freedom and those same human rights that were so pervasive in our society. How could both be true? And how can we live with the current reality without feeling that all our efforts were for naught?
Searching for an effective response to these stressful feelings, I remembered learning about Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which derives from dialectical thinking — the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures. We use this thinking in our daily lives. For example, I may care about my best friend and think she’s great, but she has one habit that I really can’t stand. The two seemingly opposite facts about my BFF (a dialectical situation) are both true at the same time. How can I deal with that? Dialectics are always present, especially nowadays.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy designed in the late 1980’s by Dr. Marsha Linehan to teach people how to live in the moment, develop healthy ways to cope with stress, regulate their emotions, and improve their relationships with others. It is based on the premise that everything is composed of opposites and that change occurs when there is a “dialogue” between opposing forces. It calls upon people to embrace contradiction. It assumes that:
- All things are interconnected.
- Change is constant and inevitable.
- There is an opposite to everything, and we tend to be more effective when we find balance between opposites.
- Opposites can be integrated to form a closer approximation of the truth.
Dialectics means balance, and in DBT, it is particularly important to balance the idea of acceptance and change. By thinking and acting dialectically, we can keep our emotions calm AND broaden our perspective to see two truths in a situation.
Practicing dialectics is one strategy to manage our emotions in these stressful times. Here are some ways to think and act dialectically right now:
- Accept that the world is comprised of opposites.
Recognize that there is always more than one way to view a situation, and there is always more than one solution to a problem. Consider alternatives to your automatic thinking. For example, if assuming that you will have a horrible day because it is raining is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, consider how you can have a great day even if it is raining.
- Balance opposites and let go of extremes. Two things that seem to be opposites can both be true. Replace “always/never” with “sometimes”, “either/or” for “both/and”, and “but” with “and”. By changing your language, you will change your perspective.
- Take a dialectical approach to relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. Validate others’ feelings while sharing your own beliefs. In doing so you can demonstrate that you understand their perspective while offering your own opinion. In doing so you state that both perspectives are true, and you also suggest new alternatives or possibilities.
How might you apply these principles in your life today? Maybe you can accept a frustrating situation without it limiting you by recognizing that opposites can both be true. Maybe you can be mindful of your language and integrate dialectical statements in the morning to start your day off on a positive note. Maybe you can talk to someone you care about in a dialectical way in order to reduce conflicts. By integrating dialectics into your daily routine, you can better manage your emotions during these unsettling times.
The benefits of dialectical thinking were brought home to me in a recent New York Times Magazine article in which Barack Obama was interviewed about reading, writing and radical empathy [“Barack Obama Opens Up About Writing ‘A Promised Land’” 12/15/2020]. In the interview, Obama related how his views were deeply influenced by his studies of thinkers and activists, including the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The article states:
From his studies of these thinkers and activists, Mr. Obama took what he called the “Niebuhrian” lesson that we can have “a cleareyed view of the world and the realities of cruelty and sin and greed and violence, and yet, still maintain a sense of hope and possibility, as an act of will and leap of faith.”