The Dialectical World View and Basic Assumptions

DBT Skills Training Manual

Dialectical perspectives on the nature of reality and human behavior share three primary characteristics.

  1. First, much as dynamic systems perspectives do, dialectics stresses the fundamental interrelatedness or wholeness of reality. This means that a dialectical approach views analyses of individual parts of a system as of limited value unless the analysis clearly relates the parts to the whole. Thus dialectics directs our attention to the individual parts of a system (i.e., one specific behavior), as well as to the interrelatedness of the part to other parts (e.g., other behaviors, the environmental context) and to the larger wholes (e.g., the culture, the state of the world at the time).
  2. Second, reality is not seen as static, but as made up of internal opposing forces (thesis and antithesis) out of whose synthesis evolves a new set of opposing forces. A very important dialectical idea is that all propositions contain within them their own oppositions. As Goldberg put it, “I assume that truth is paradoxical, that each article of wisdom contains within it its own contradictions, that truths stand side by side” (pp. 295–296, emphasis in original).4 Dialectics, in this sense, is compatible with psychodynamic conflict models of psychopathology. Dichotomous and extreme thinking, behavior, and emotions are viewed as dialectical failures. The individual is stuck in polarities, unable to move to syntheses.
  3. A third very important polarity has to do with clients’ maintaining personal integrity and validating their own views of their difficulties versus learning new skills that will help them emerge from their suffering. If clients get better by learning new skills, they validate their view that the problem all along was that they did not have sufficient skills to help themselves. They have not been trying to manipulate people, as others have accused them of doing. They are not motivated to hurt others, and they do not lack positive motivation. But the clients’ learning new skills may also seem to validate others’ opinions in other ways: It may appear to prove that others were right all along (and the client was wrong), or that the client was the problem (not the environment). Dialectics not only focuses the client’s attention on these polarities, but also suggests ways out of them.

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