How can we begin to understand the world beyond our internal perspective? Claire Nara, a clinical psychotherapist, writes that dialectical thinking can help us open up our thought processes to an increased awareness of a multi-faceted reality, beyond the typical black and white, good and bad binary world that it is often presented to us.
There are many ways our thought patterns can get us in trouble. We can become wrapped up in a feeling of abandonment, and we ruminate on the idea that we are not wanted. We can become fearful about losing our job, and every interaction with our boss seems to signal a possible termination.
When situations like this happen, it is common to focus solely on one outcome, and more often than not, it is the one thing we don't want to happen. Much of the reason we do this is because we are oriented toward survival, so we try to avoid the things that can hurt us. This means seeing danger before it happens and acting to prevent it.
But this also means that so often our thoughts only consider one thing: how to prevent harm. In that case, we only see things from that perspective and every interpretation we have aids that. Yet, that is only one way to think.
Dialectical thinking, also known as paradoxical thinking is, in many ways, the opposite of the catastrophic thinking that responds to threats. Dialectical thinking is defined as seeing things from multiple perspectives. A fundamental principle of dialectical thinking is that everything is composed of opposites and that to understand things more fully, we need to understand their opposites. For example, if darkness is defined as the absence of light, we couldn’t describe it unless we also defined light.
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Because a defining principle of dialectical thinking is that everything is composed of opposites, it holds that nothing is ever black and white, or all good or all bad. Instead, every person, place, thing, and situation has both good and bad components. As much as we may not like someone, they are not all bad, and as much as we may be excited about something, there will be components of it that are challenging.
Understanding that there are many ways to see situations helps us move past rigid thought patterns and the resultant emotions that come with them. Dialectical thinking also helps us understand that alternate perspectives might be equally worth considering.
See things from a different perspective
Because dialectical thinking contends that it is only through understanding the opposite of something that we can fully understand and appreciate it, it gives value to understanding the flipside of whatever we confront. For example, without being poor or struggling financially, we would never know what it is like to be rich, and we wouldn’t appreciate it.
Accepting that every situation is composed of both positive and negative components also helps us acknowledge that, even in the worst of situations, we can find something beyond the negative components that comprise it. For example, losing our job can be a time to reflect is what our values are and if they are truly aligned with our job. Similarly, finding ourselves frustrated with a person can bring up important emotions that might be helpful for us to cope with. Exploring these emotions might be a gateway to better understanding ourselves.
Let go of anger, resentment, and frustration
When all we can see is one way, and all we focus on is that one way, the negative emotions that result are all we can feel. However, when we can find an alternative way to look at the situation, recognize that there is another perspective, we can also find that we need not be so attached to those feelings.
Perhaps when we consider that the person we are so frustrated with is suffering themselves, or simply trying to act in a way that best supports their survival, and not necessarily acting out of spite for us, we can begin to understand that it is possible that the way we are interpreting the situation might not be correct, and by virtue of this, the emotions we feel might not be the only valid emotions. It may even be possible that we begin to feel a sense of compassion for the same person who previously was causing us anger.
Learning to think dialectically helps our thinking become more flexible, and as it does, the grip that negative emotions have on us becomes much less tight.
Gain a sense of control
When we accept that our way of thinking is not the only way and we come to value alternative perspectives and the insight they bring, not just do we find ourselves much less attached to our way of thinking, but also much more able to open our eyes to other ways of thinking. Becoming more cognitively flexible allows us to adapt our thinking in ways that help us contend with situations.
While difficult situations can bring difficult emotions, it is not hard to recognize that becoming mired in anger does not help us figure out how best to deal with an undesirable situation. Once this recognition is made, the awareness that an alternative perspective is needed naturally follows. From there, we can then begin to explore if we are interpreting the situation in a way that could be incomplete, or altogether inaccurate.
By examining our thought patterns, not only do we expose them to the kind of critical thinking that helps them improve, but we also gain a sense of control over our thinking, and the responses that follow our thoughts. This ability to stop, examine, and shift interpretation and response brings a tremendous sense of control as we are no longer at the mercy of our impulses.
Nothing in life is ever black and white, and nothing is ever all good or all bad. Dialectical thinking helps us understand that every situation has positive and negative components. When we can do this, like a curtain being pulled back from a window, suddenly we are able to adopt a panoramic view of the world that helps become less constricted by negative emotions, much more in control of the way we see the world, and much more mentally healthy.