What is a Dialectic? / What does Dialectical mean?

What is a Dialectic? What does Dialectical (as in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT) mean?

Today in DBT class, our doctor presented us with a section from a book called Dialectics of Anxiety and Depression.

Dialectics of Anxiety and Depression
by Thomas Marra, Ph.D.
I hadn't seen this workbook before and was intrigued. Using it as a guide, we talked about what a dialectic is and what dialectical means.  

Essentially, "Dialectics" is the theory of how we reason with DBT.

A dialectic is when we have two thoughts, feelings, urges, etc. that are:
  • in conflict
  • are opposites
  • are contradictory
  • are competing
  • are black or white/all or nothing

Dr. Marra (author of the workbook featured in this post, which is recommended by my doctor) describes a dialectic as:
  • "a set of issues that demand different and incompatible responses" (p.16)
  • "an internal debate you have with yourself" (p.17)
  • "not [being] wrong or bad that a dialectic set of needs and wants exists" (p.17)
  • "each side of the dialectic are equally important to you" (p.16)

Many of us with Borderline Personality Disorder may recognize a key term that describes dialectics: "Black or White" or "All or Nothing" thinking.

Here are some examples of dialectics:
  • You feel anxious. On the one hand you want safety and on the other, you want to feel freedom. An example is if you have anxiety about going to a party. One part of you wants the safety of just staying at home with familiar surroundings and situations, and the other part of you really wants to go to the party to feel the freedom of being in a new experience and having fun with new people.
  • You want to watch your weight, but you also want to eat half of that chocolate cake.
  • You want your boyfriend to move out right now, but another part of you desperately wants him to stay.
According to Dr. Marra, "DBT asks you to identify what are called dialectic failures (compromises you've made that generate anxiety and depression) and to 'move' along the dialectic differently than before in order to increase your chance of feeling less anxious and depressed" (p.16).

It's helpful to have an image of a dialectic to understand the concept of "moving along" the spectrum.

What if one part of you felt like you needed to keep your house perfectly clean all of the time, but another part of you felt that you were a total slob and didn't feel like doing ANY housework?

Have you ever had two completely opposing thoughts or feelings existing at the same time like this? For a lot of us, we can feel stopped in our tracks, completely frozen and indecisive.

So how do we apply our DBT skills to help us find some balance? How in the world do we go about balancing two things that are contradictory or complete opposites:

According to my doctor, the next time I experience a dialectical thought, feeling, idea, or urge, I should do the following:
  1. Just notice.  Observe what you are experiencing. Identify the two conflicting thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc.
  2. Notice your train of thought. Mindfully turn the mind toward your thought process.
  3. Realize that you can't have it both ways. (The old saying is "You can't have your cake AND eat it too." So, if you eat your cake, you no longer have it, but if you have it, you have not eaten it.)
  4. Make a decision. Follow through, notice how it goes, and use the experience to help with other paralyzing dialectics.

"DBT invites you to clearly identify the choices you are making, the compromises you're forming between competing desires, and to analyze the outcome of the choices" (Marra, 17).

My doctor suggested creating a continuum with each extreme represented and to log where you are at, at any given time. Using the clean house example:

Doing so allows us to observe and document where we are with a dialectic and to help us to discover which side we lean further toward. This can help with the ultimate task of decision making.

What are some dialectics that you personally experience or have experienced?  Has anything helped you to move past the conflict and make a decision?

Thanks for reading.
More Soon.

UPDATE: I now co-facilitate completely online, worldwide DBT Classes with a licensed therapist over at DBT Path. If you want to learn more, visit me over there as well!


  1. I find this so difficult. I am used to feeling this way on a daily basis, sometimes more than once or twice a day. If i'm having a particularly bad day it could be ten or more times.
    I often find that i can't make a choice at all one way or the other. I get more and more frustrated trying to make a choice. And often after i've chosen which way to go i nearly always feel disappointed or that i've made the wrong choice.
    Thank you for posting this Debbie. I am going to keep this in mind and refer back to it when i need to.

    1. It definitely *is* difficult, Rainbow. ♥ Keeping it in mind (being mindful and aware) is the first step to resolving the inner conflicts. Hugs!

  2. wow, sooo glad i found all this, i though i was crazy with arguing with myself all the time like this!! although lately i am the master of self control and control the urges to do things that will make things harder for myself! i acknowledge my feelings and thoughts, BREATHE, and let them go, it's ok to be angry, sad, emotional! whereas before i thought there must be something wrong with me and didn't know how to handle all these thoughts and feelings coming at me in a hard situation!! every situation is learning, and learning to deal with your reactions and thoughts and feelings!! thank you so much for writing all about this!!

    1. I'm glad you found your way here, too, Cassie. ☺ You have the right attitude: every situation is a learning experience. So glad that this post was helpful for you. ♥

  3. Thanks so much Debbie i never understood that til now late

    L x

    1. Very glad this was helpful, Laura! ♥

    2. I love your blog. I don’t even remember how I found it, but I am so glad I did. Thank you for sharing your story. I have wanted to comment since I started reading it to thank you for being so open and honest with your journey. I am currently in a DBT group and it has changed my life. It is super hard work and has been the most difficult thing I have ever done (even more difficult than 2 degrees from Boise State University), but it has been so worth it.

      I am not diagnosed with BPD, but I have many of the same characteristics in my personality and thinking. My official diagnosis is Major Depressive Disorder with Psychotic Features, along with anxiety. I have taken so many different meds over the years, along with individual therapy, but the only thing that has made a major difference in my life is DBT.

      I hope someday to be as open with my struggle to live as you have been. You are my inspiration. I have kept a “happy” blog for years (http://charisseupdate.blogspot.com) and have just recently started a blog that deals with mental illness (http://justkeepswimmingeveryday.blogspot.com).

      I have learned so much from your posts and resources. Thank you so much! Keep writing….you are changing lives and giving us hope!

      Charisse (Boise, ID)

    3. Thank you Charisse for your thoughtful comment and for sharing part of your story. I am glad you felt safe to do that here. It means so much to me that I have inspired you, and I look forward to checking out your writing as well. Thank you! ♥

  4. Hello Debbie, I want to thank you for publishing this info, I have been recently diagnosed with BPD and your site has helped me in the process of understanding myself.

    This is gonna be a long post:

    I have what I consider to be a dialectic, I am 22 years old and after graduating from high school I did not go straight to college because I did not know what I wanted to study, I considered myself to be good at pretty much every subject (haha I already read that part, I know I´m not perfect) because I was always a good student, anyway
    after 2 years of having irregular jobs here and there I decided to attend law school at my local college, which I regret after a year since I was not very popular or accepted (like I was in high school). Long story short I dropped out and right now I´m considering going back because I like the idea of making money but at the same time I want to dedicate my time to something that I feel passionate about and those kinds of things don´t give money (literature, philosophy, teaching). I have talked to many people about this issue, I dont want to be tied to a job that I could possibly dislike but what about the money ? I hope you get the situation and sorry for my bad grammar (english is not my first language).

    Best regards.

    -Luis, from Tijuana Mexico.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Luis. :)
      First of all, your English is excellent - I had no idea it was your second language until you said something.

      I am sorry that you didn't feel popular accepted in both high school and college. Their loss!

      And, yes, you have an *excellent* example of a dialectic: wanting to make lots of money and at the same time wanting to serve others in a way that doesn't usually bring very much money.

      This is such a common inner struggle. It will take some soul searching to figure it out, but try to remember that the world is not black or white -- it is possible that a solution exists - a career helping others -- that can also bring you the financial health that you also desire.

      I wish you well as you sort this out, and thank you again for commenting. ♥

  5. I wonder how common it is to have Bipolar Disorder and this? I always say I have two voices competing with each other or battling each other. I feel crazy sometimes because I have to talk myself into stuff or out of stuff. I love and hate people around me, my anger is off the chain and abandonment issues are off the chain. I just thought it was a normal feeling because of how I was raised.

    1. Hi Ashlee,

      I'm not sure what the statistics are, but I have heard from a lot of people with BPD (and also had my own experience) that they were misdiagnosed with Bipolar initially, only to be properly diagnosed as having BPD eventually.

      I would say that, in a sense, those feelings and reactions are "normal" given your upbringing. Marsha Linehan (founder of DBT, which is a very effective treatment for BPD) says that "everything has cause," meaning a chain of events leads up to each moment. Thanks for commenting! ♥ Debbie



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