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Using DBT to Confront Black-and-White Thinking

June 02, 2016

Clerissa Cooper, LPC, NCC, Lead Counselor, Skyland Trail

From time to time, we all experience black-and-white thinking or fall into an all-or-nothing frame of mind. For some people, a pattern of black-and-white thinking over time may reinforce a recurring automatic negative thought – “I can’t do anything right” – to the point that it becomes a permanent negative core belief – “I am worthless.”

That negative core belief creates a filter for all of their thoughts and experiences, impacting their emotional health, relationships, and ability to feel successful, valued and loved. Individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders are more prone to these harmful thought patterns.

At Skyland Trail, we use Dialectical Behavior Therapy – or DBT – to confront that pattern of thinking and disrupt the cycle.

What is Dialectics?

Essentially, dialectics is the idea that opposing thoughts, emotions, or experiences can co-exist. Two things can be very different or seemingly in conflict with one another, yet can still both have a grain of truth. When we examine dialectics, we look for the truth in all sides and look for how these truths can merge.

From a philosophical perspective, we have the thesis on one side, the antithesis on the other side, and the synthesis in the middle, which is a merging of the two – the gray area in a black-versus-white context.

For example:

Thesis: Because I make a lot of mistakes, I am worthless.

Antithesis: Making mistakes is not a big deal. I shouldn’t really care about it at all.

Synthesis: Acknowledging and improving on my mistakes is important and does not diminish my worth as a person.

How does black-and-white thinking affect our emotions?

Living in a place of black-and-white, either-or, all-or-none can intensify our emotions.

When every conversation is a referendum on whether you are loved or unloved, and every action or inaction determines whether you are a success or failure, the stakes seem incredibly high for daily interactions and experiences. In that state, your mood can shift rapidly, and your anxiety can build to painful levels. You may often feel out of control, either unable to control your own emotions, or feeling powerless to control your environment.

The goal with Dialectical Behavior Therapy is to find the truth in all sides so that we can be more willing and able to accept each moment for what it is… and what it is not. Recognizing the dialectic in each situation relieves the pressure of trying to control everything and feeling powerless when we can’t.

Dialectics and Relationships

One of the places where black-and-white thinking can get us in trouble is with relationships. When we’re not able to recognize a perspective different from our own, or when we view each interaction as further proof that I am a success or a failure, I am loved or unloved, it creates a lot of tension and conflict. Individuals trapped in a pattern of black-and-white thinking may fight and create discord in relationships, or avoid relationships altogether, cut people out of their lives, and isolate.

I like to use the example of me and my brother. I love my brother dearly, but we are very different people. I am a therapist, very people-oriented and emotion-minded. My brother is an engineer, a linear thinker, and rational-minded. We disagree a lot. If I allowed our relationship to stay in a very black-and-white place, I would think, “I can’t respect anyone who thinks the way he does. I’m right. He’s wrong. There’s no way I can have a relationship with someone who doesn’t share the same beliefs and way of thinking.”

Instead, I use my skills to find the truth in my perspective, and also find the truth in my brother’s perspective. Then I examine how they intersect or merge. It allows me to come to the conclusion that we can disagree, navigate the world in different ways, and still love each other. We can figure out how to communicate and engage in a healthy relationship.

Being able to find the “gray” is really beneficial for relationships. It enables us to find common ground or at least respect one another.

Using Dialectics to Examine Core Beliefs

Another area where thinking about dialectics is useful is in examining our core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. This often is an issue for people with borderline personality disorder, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders.

We all have regrets or would like to change some aspect of ourselves: we wish we had been a more supportive friend or were generally more punctual.  Sometimes, that one thing starts to define a person’s entire self-worth.

The thought process is, “This thing I did or weakness I feel does not match with my idea of what is ‘good’ or ‘successful.’ I am a bad person. I am a failure. I don’t deserve love. I don’t deserve to live.”

They lose sight of all of the other aspects of their lives where they are upholding their values, where their actions are in line with what they believe to be “good” or “successful.”

Finding the dialectic – identifying areas where they have acted or are acting in-line with their values – and merging the two sides of the story allows them to develop a more realistic view of themselves. “I have areas to continue to grow and improve, and I am not worthless. Who I am now is worthy of love, and as I continue to develop and grow even closer to my own values, I will still be just as deserving and worthy of love.”

It is incredibly hard work to make this paradigm shift – to completely change how you think about yourself and the world around you.

Negative core beliefs start from a seed planted in our brains, often in childhood. That seed gets watered and is allowed to take root and grow for years – decades even – before we finally develop the acceptance, willingness, insight, and skills to address it in adulthood. By then our brains are less naturally flexible, and it takes time and significant effort to build up enough evidence to support the positive side of the dialectic to counterbalance the weight of time and experience on the other side. Dialectics are extremely effective tools, and the work is challenging.

Using Dialectics to Support One Another

It’s important to figure out how people want and need to be loved and how they want and need to receive communication.

If you want to support someone who struggles with a negative core belief, consider how you phrase criticism or reminders. Avoid blanket, black-and-white statements like “You never remember to lock the door,” or “You are always late.” Instead try some of the following suggestions:

  • “I noticed that sometimes you forget to lock the door. Will you please try to be a bit more aware and consistent with locking the door?”
  • “It’s really important to me that the door gets locked consistently. Is there something I can do to help you be more consistent in remembering to lock the door when you leave home?”
  • “Would you like help trying to figure out ways to remember to lock the door? I know it can be hard to remember at times.”
  •  “I noticed that I often have to wait for you to arrive. Maybe we can talk about better scheduling our meetings or finding a way to make sure we’re on the same page about arriving at the same time.”

And be intentional about reinforcing positive efforts and actions, even if they seem small. “I appreciate you spending time with me this afternoon,” or “I notice you seem really organized this week; you are really accomplishing a lot.”

When you disagree about something, try to find the truth in both positions and find the middle ground. If there is a pattern to the disagreements, discuss if a different style of communication would help both of you feel validated and heard.

More broadly, beyond relationships with friends and loved ones, applying dialectical thinking to engage in dialogue can be a useful skill to help resolve conflict and encourage positive change. While some people are aggressively asserting opposing opinions, and others are avoiding the conversation altogether, those with dialectical thinking skills may be in a unique position to find the truth in all sides and propose a solution.

Learning to be intentional about recognizing the truth on all sides, whatever the situation, takes effort and can lead to healthier relationships, a stronger sense of self, and clearer thinking when deciding what actions we want to take next on our journey.

Clerissa Cooper, MS, LPC, NCC

Clerissa Cooper is a lead counselor at Skyland Trail. She provides both individual and group therapy in the outpatient program. She has completed foundational training in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) from Behavioral Tech and has been practicing DBT as an individual and group therapist for over five years. She is a licensed professional counselor and a nationally certified counselor. Previous counseling experience includes private practice, residential, day treatment, and intensive outpatient settings, as well as positions in the field of women’s health. She received a B.A. in English literature, psychology, and creative writing and an M.S. in clinical mental health.