What are Dialectics and Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills?

What is Dialectics?

Dialectics is based on the idea that two opposing concepts can both be equally true. One truth does not trump or rule out another, which undercuts the dichotomy of a “I am right you are wrong” type of relationship. A common dialectic is that you are perfect as you are (acceptance), and that in order for things to turn out differently in your life, you need to do things differently (change). One is not more true than the other, and one truth does not rule out the other truth. Sometimes people need acceptance, and sometimes people need to be challenged. Both belonging and growth are an inherent part of being in relationship.

Dialectics challenges the idea that one person is always “right”, because when you take into account diversity of perspective, other truths often arise. Being “right” often fails to take into account effective communication and the value of the relationship. Experience and emotions get ignored. A set agenda of being “right” often gets people stuck in a very rigid, dichotomous, black and white, non-dialectical stance. Dialectics are important in that sometimes you can find the one thing you have in common with your enemy instead of focusing in ways you are different. Relationships exist in context of conflicting truths, yet relationships are the glue that carries us through life.

What are the four Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills?

DBT is a complex treatment that has confusing origins in terms of how it was developed and who it was for, and has been tailored to a wide range of populations and settings. The DBT skills are universally applicable materials that help people with extreme and painful emotions, intolerable life situations, and relationships. The four skills sets are as follows:

Core Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a skill that helps people focus attention, regulate arousal, calm the brain, quiet the mind, and settle in. Being mindful is a way to steady and anchor oneself in order to observe quietly and not “react” to what is going on. It is inherent in all of the other skills in that it requires a steady, quiet, secure stance in the face of demanding life situations. It takes spaciousness to know what is going in with your body, your self-experience, your wants and desires, and your life. If you don’t pause the moment and check in with yourself, it is easier to get “caught up” in the banging and thrashing of what life throws in your direction. Mindfulness can be a spiritual practice of quiet contemplation, a way to press the pause button, and way to regroup. Core mindfulness skills taught from the DBT material include skills of observing and describing without judgement. Other traditions, spiritual practices, health care services, and therapies teach mindfulness, so it is not “new” nor is it confined to just DBT skills; its roots are actually in Zen Buddhism. There are multiple ways of accessing mindfulness including mindfulness based programs, meditation groups, trainings, and apps. DBT groups are known for implementing a mindful practice or exercise in every group, and like many spiritual traditions are simply considered part of a daily practice.

Emotion Regulation: This is a set of skills that helps people to observe and describe what they feel (you can see the overlap with mindfulness) in order to help regulate arousal, understand what they feel, and know the reasons why they feel the way they feel. Skills cover ways to reduce emotional suffering through mindfulness and opposite action, and ways to reduce vulnerability to emotional suffering. Skills are quite complex and take practice, feedback, and validation. Since emotions can be tricky, elusive, (and just plain unbearable at times) the emotion regulation content is not something you could “quick learn” and be done with it. Sometimes people are not always aware of how or what they feel in general, and there is nothing pathological about this. It is a process! Knowing oneself and knowing one’s emotions is a lifelong task not subjected to any particular type of disorder, and does not end just because you have had a first exposure to all of the skill content. That is why working together on ways to regulate arousal given varying life circumstances can best be done over time in small group settings that promote cohesion and intimacy.

Distress Tolerance: In order to regulate emotional arousal, finding ways to endure the “I-can’t-stand-it-itis” of painful and extreme emotions is critical. Surviving painful life circumstances well means doing so in a way where people do not lose self-respect, forget their values, give up what is important to them, or react in such a way that makes things worse. Sitting in the fire and not reacting is often harder than picking a fight, poking the fire, making others suffer in order to prove a point, exacerbating pain to let others know how bad things are, undermining a person where it hurts, forcing the university to prove its point, perseverating on being “right”, asking “why me”, or engaging in self-defeating or relationship destroying behaviors. Being willing to tolerate the unknown, be zen with the universe, stop fighting reality, and do what works is skillful practice. We all want things to do our way or to turn out for the best. In reality, a lot of people are suffering a great deal and need everything they can to survive well. Distress tolerance skills encompass not only change strategies (if you can do one thing make it better, why wouldn’t you?), but acceptance and willingness skills. Anyone who has successfully undergone any type of exposure treatment for anxiety knows that the benefit to tolerating anxiety is a decrease in overall anxiety. There is an inherent truth that reality is easier to face once you stop fighting it, thus freeing you up to do what is needed to effectively solve problems.

Interpersonal effectiveness: True to the concept of the dialectical philosophy of DBT, it is better to be effective than it is to be right. The interpersonal skill content encourages readers to identify objectives in situations (what exactly it is you want or don’t want), how the relationship may be impacted, and if self-respect is at stake. Balancing the three helps people to look at natural barriers and consequences of interacting, and enables readers to problem solve the cost/ benefit of ignoring each. For instance, you can ask for what you want at the expense of the relationship, or you can give into a relationship but sacrifice self-respect. The balancing act of relationships is an ongoing challenge for everyone, and some give and take is part of how people stick together, find intimacy, and keep people close. Interpersonal skills also include ways to get out of or decrease contact with toxic or unwanted relationships, set limits, say no, and to identify barriers to doing so. Direct rehearsal in terms of “what to say and how to say it” benefits group members in that they can try out and receive feedback in both verbal and non-verbal forms.

A book of all the DBT skills is available for purchase via this link: https://tinyurl.com/y2qad6sk