Holding Two Truths
The concept of dialectical thinking, or how opposites can co-exist, is a helpful way to think about many issues. Dialects are the philosophical basis of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). The idea here is that two seemingly conflicting ideas or concepts are true at the same time. Some examples of dialectical thinking include: I am doing my best and I can try harder, I am capable and I need support, I feel angry and I can be respectful, I disagree with you and I understand and respect you, I hate what you did and I still love you, I don’t want to do this and I am going to do it anyway, I want to change and I am afraid of change.
What often keeps people stuck is getting pulled into polarized thinking: wrong vs. right, fair vs. unfair, easy vs. difficult. These dichotomous ways of thinking can be helpful and efficient in some areas of life but when applied to our inner experiences, or in relationships, their ridged adherence keeps us “spinning our wheels”. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) gives us the tool of replacing the word “but” with “and” helping to move us forward out of the trap of polarized thinking. Whenever you use “but” see if you can change it to “and”. For example, “I would like to go to the party, but I am anxious” how about “I would like to go to the party and I am anxious”. ACT and DBT both provide skills to normalize and handle painful emotions so that your life becomes less about controlling internal experiences and more about living a rich life, full of meaning and with the whole range of human experiences.
This concept of two things being true can also be very helpful in parenting. Most parents struggle with wanting to help their children feel comfortable and happy and wanting them to be independent, responsible, and respectful. Using the idea of dialects teaches children how to hold two truths. If a child is experiencing an unpleasant emotion, we can help them name it “it seems like you are feeling sad/angry/worried right now, that makes sense. I would feel that way too if my brother took my candy/someone pushed me/I was going to a birthday party where I didn’t know a lot of people. After validating the feeling, we then can use the idea to two things being true- You feel sad your brother took your candy and you can’t hit him because that breaks our anger rules. What could you do instead? Using the word “but” is almost always invalidating. It’s sort of like saying its okay to feel that way but really it isn’t. – “You feel sad your brother took your candy, but you can’t hit him because that breaks our anger rules”. Although changing “but” to “and” is a subtle shift it makes a difference and starts to teach children that emotions and thoughts are not the problem, the problem is what we do when they show up. Parents can apply dialectical thinking to themselves to help gain balance: I love you and I do not like what you did, I want to help you and for you to gain independence, this is difficult and I think you can do it, I want to have fun and have rules and boundaries. As a parent we can give ourselves permission to hold two truths: I can mess up and repair, I can regret things I have said and do better in the future.
So, you don’t have to choose a single truth, most issues are more complex than that. Imagine the difference this would make in our relationships and in politics! Instead of fighting on our side we could agree- this part is true and valid for you, and this is true and valid for me, how can we work together to find a workable compromise.
Kennedy, B. (2022). Good Inside: A guide to becoming the parent you want to be. New York, NY Harpers Collins Publishers.
Lineham, M (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets. New York, NY. The Guilford Press.
Blog Post by Registered Psychologist, Alison Campbell