Dialectics – No (ifs, ands, or) buts

Dialectical thinking is one of the most influential concepts that I have learned from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). I not only teach this to my patients regularly, but I also have shared it with my friends and family and practice it myself. This is an extremely useful life skill.  You can learn more about DBT, a therapy originally developed by Marsha Linehan to help chronically suicidal patients with Borderline Personality Disorder at the following website: https://behavioraltech.org/resources/faqs/what-is-dbt/.

From my understanding, dialectics is the concept that two things that seem opposite and contradictory can both be true. For example, my parents can be very strict and they can still love me. I can do badly on an exam and still be very smart and hard-working. For most individuals, especially at times of distress, we tend to think non-dialectically and this can create problems for ourselves. The beauty about dialectics is that there are some simple tools we can use to change our mindset. For example, I try to eliminate the word “but” from my language. When I talk with parents about communicating better with their children, I remind them that when they are supporting their child, avoid the word “but.” A parent might say, “Honey, I’m so sorry you are disappointed about not making the volleyball team, BUT you were feeling stressed out anyways and now you have more time to do your schoolwork.” Your distressed child likely just heard “You need to focus on your schoolwork” and did not hear any support from you. A lot of times, the word “but” magically eliminates others’ recollection of the statement that preceded it. Instead, try to replace “but” statements with “and” statements. If I’m telling my friend, “I care a lot about you AND I’m worried about you because…”, they are much more likely to hear support and to feel validated then if I use the word “but.”

In addition to eliminating “but” from my language, I also have tried to eliminate other non-dialectical words. These are strong words that are often judgments and lead to strong emotions: Hate, dumb, jerk, etc. Even more interestingly, by changing the way I speak, I also change the way I think.  “But” and other non-dialectical words and thoughts have begun to diminish in my mind before the words reach my mouth. By thinking more dialectically, negative emotions often can be less intense. Dialectics allows us to look at all the facts instead of thinking more rigidly, or having black and white thinking. Black and white thinking involves seeing things as either one extreme or the other: good or bad, smart or stupid, love or hate. When we thinking dialectically, we look at all the other options in the middle.  Maybe our friends are lovable and sometimes mean; maybe our parents try really hard to do their best and sometimes make mistakes.

When we think more dialectically, this often leads to less intense negative emotions and also affects our behaviors. For example, if my friend says something non-supportive, instead of thinking “He’s a jerk” and ignoring him, I may think “Wow, those words were hurtful. He is normally supportive and today he was not. I wonder why?” Of course, I am still upset. However, being dialectical allows me to be more curious and to investigate further instead of reacting immediately. I may be more likely to calmly tell my friend how he upset me and to be better equipped to hear his side of the story. Instead of assuming this person is suddenly not a good friend, dialectics helps me realize that I am probably missing useful information here.

If you take just one useful tip from this post, try to notice when you use the word “but” and try to work on replacing it with “and.” Just by doing this, you may already notice some positive changes in your thinking, your emotions, and your relationships. If you feel like this is too much to ask, maybe think: “I’m really busy AND this is really important so I will just do my best to start to make changes.”

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