“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” – Viktor Frankl
Things in life are rarely “always” one way or the another. When you live according to absolutes or extremes, there is a tendency to become easily overwhelmed, overly stressed, and emotionally reactive. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) uses the word “dialectic” to refer to the tension between two seeming opposites. When thinking about dialectical behavior patterns, the simplest way to understand them is to consider the concept of balance between change and acceptance. When patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving are dichotomous, you can usually find some degree of imbalance in the person’s overall lifestyle.
This imbalance might manifest itself through all-or-nothing (dichotomous) thinking, extreme mood swings, unpredictable or impulsive behaviors, or self-destructive actions. However the imbalance expresses itself outwardly, there is often a common inner sense of feeling out of control, chaotic, or even numb. DBT teaches individuals essential skills in mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness that can have a significant impact on chaotic behaviors and an unbalanced lifestyle.
Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of DBT, explains that “a focus on dialectical behavior patterns emphasizes moving… toward more balanced and integrative responses to life situations. From a Buddhist perspective, this is walking the ‘middle path.'” (Linehan, 1993, p. 124). In her original text on DBT, she suggests that the following dialectical tensions must be resolved in order to lead an emotionally balanced life:
(1) Skill Enhancement vs. Self-Acceptance
As I mentioned, DBT teaches a wide variety of concrete skills based on the four basic modules of mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Resolving this dialectical tension involves finding balance between actively building the skills in your “toolkit” that allow you to effectively handle distressing thoughts, emotions, and situations while simultaneously practicing radical acceptance. At its extreme, a focus on enhancing skills can lead to inflexibility, rigidity, and intolerance with yourself if you don’t use the “right” skills at the “right” times. On the other hand, self-acceptance at its extreme has a danger of leading to complacency. The key to finding balance here is to keep pushing yourself to use effective skills while also accepting yourself just as you are in this moment.
(2) Problem Solving vs. Problem Acceptance
To find balance between problem solving and problem acceptance, you can think about moving into a place of mindfulness and engaging in effective action while simultaneously accepting the problem just as it is. If you were to get carried away in problem solving in an extreme way, you may engage in some form of denial that the problem exists or be unnecessarily hard on yourself or others in your attempts to solve the problem. On the other hand, problem acceptance at its extreme might lead to avoidance of looking for solutions.
(3) Emotion Regulation vs. Emotion Tolerance
Resolving this dialectic involves actively using emotion regulation skills while simultaneously tolerating (accepting) your emotions in the present moment. Emotion regulation might involve using skills like opposite action, whereas emotion tolerance might mean using skills of mindfulness and distress tolerance to ride the wave of distressing emotions. Finding balance means tapping into wise mind and becoming more mindful of when it is in your best interest to actively regulate emotions or tolerate/accept them.
(4) Self-Efficacy vs. Help Seeking
It can be difficult for many people to reach out to others and actively ask for help. There is often a fear of being rejected or being thought of as incompetent. The trick is to discern between times when it is in your best interest to reach out to others for help versus using your own knowledge and abilities to accomplish the task at hand on your own. Resolving this dialectical tension involves using the wisdom of wise mind to tell you when you have the skills and competence necessary to get the job done versus when it is completely appropriate (and wise) to seek out help from others.
(5) Independence vs. Dependence
At its extreme, independence can result in an avoidant attachment style with others – denying both to yourself and to others your deep need for emotional connection to others (which we all have). On the other hand, dependence at its extreme can result in clinging to others, looking to others for constant reassurance, and helplessness. Finding balance means getting in touch with your deep inner core of strength that allows you to feel safe and secure even when others aren’t around to be there for you, yet simultaneously feeling able to reach out to others for support in a balanced way.
(6) Transparency vs. Privacy
When you are completely transparent with other people, there may be a tendency to “overshare” personal information with people you don’t know intimately or to leave nothing to the imagination. Extreme privacy might manifest itself as emotional detachment, avoidance, or paranoia. There is a balance to be achieved here, which involves learning when it is appropriate to share your private thoughts and feelings with others versus times when it is best to keep things more to yourself. If you feel unsure, you can try checking in with wise mind and also mindfully gauging the responses that you get from other people.
(7) Trust vs. Suspicion
Extreme trust can lead to gullibility, naïveté, or dependency, whereas extreme suspicion might lead to avoidance, emotional detachment, or paranoia. You can resolve this dialectic through mindfully paying attention to what information people give you about themselves regarding their own trustworthiness. “Everyone” is not to be completely trusted just as “everyone” is not a suspect. The trick is to begin to discern between the two while remembering that it is impossible to read another person’s mind. Allow your experience and wisdom to guide your willingness to trust others.
(8) Controlling/Changing vs. Observing
When things happen that you dislike in some way, there is a natural urge to want to either deny or change reality in some way. Generally speaking, denial leads to some form of suffering because you are denying yourself the opportunity to make decisions based on the big picture. At the same time, there are times when it is in your best interest to use problem solving skills to change unwanted situations. Finding balance involves being mindfully in tune with your own cognitive and emotional responses to events, discerning between times when it is best to be an active agent of change versus times when it is best to be a mindful and accepting observer.
(9) Needing from Others vs. Giving to Others
In relationships with other people, sometimes it is best to give and sometimes it is best to receive. Part of being interpersonally sensitive and attuned involves learning to tell the difference. In adult relationships, it is unrealistic (and sets yourself up for disappointment) to expect to get “all” of your needs met “all” of the time. But, when you give to others in an authentic and caring way, you can usually expect to receive support back (in healthy relationships). Resolving this dialectic means recognizing that sometimes it is okay to need support from others and sometimes it is okay to give of yourself to others.
(10) Self-Focusing vs. Other-Focusing
When you get overly caught up in a focus on yourself, there is a tendency to feel emotionally sensitive, socially withdrawn, or paranoid about the intentions of others. Strangely enough, when you focus on yourself in an extreme way, there is often a tendency to see yourself quite inaccurately. We learn about who we are based on our relationships with other people. There is a balance to be struck between focusing on your own internal processes, wants, and needs versus focusing on the motivations or behaviors of other people. Generally speaking, if you want to find out what “works” examine if the long-term consequences were positive or negative.
Learning to walk the middle path involves mindfully noticing urges to think or act in extremes and then gently adjusting your course. Each moment provides you with an opportunity to pause and reflect on what you are about to think, do, or say. If you feel the urge to act impulsively, begin to notice the physical sensations or thoughts associated with those urges. When you notice them occurring, use them as a cue to remind yourself to pause. Check in with your deep inner wellspring of intuition – wise mind – as you become more familiar with what it means in your life to walk the middle path. Resolving dialectical tensions means living a balanced life guided by your inner compass of intuitive knowing.
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Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Featured image: Yin and Yang by h.koppdelaney / CC BY-ND 2.0