Have you ever been on social media and caught yourself thinking, ‘wow, they have a perfect life’? As you scroll through seemingly endless happy snaps of someone’s latest festive gathering, you might have noticed an uncomfortable twinge of envy. Or, perhaps, you’re more likely to go the other way and notice you’re irritated and feeling less than charitable. After all, anyone who spends that much time on their phone must be far from perfect; if they were, they wouldn’t need to spend so much time bragging about it online. They must be so dysfunctional!
Perhaps, if we are honest, we might admit to having thought both, depending on how kindly we felt at the time.
Let’s face it, most of us enjoy a bit of black-and-white, either-or thinking, and sometimes it serves us well. As you might imagine, given how often we find ourselves in this position, there must be some benefits to thinking this way. If you are a fan of following the rules, you may really enjoy black-and-white thinking because it means there is only one right way to do something. Also, this method of reasoning can seem helpful when we have a decision to make, as there appear to be fewer options to choose from. The reality is, if something is one way or another, life becomes more predictable, which can arouse feelings of safety. If we are confident, we know how something is or what someone is ‘really like’, and that’s handy, right?
Well, perhaps less so than we might think. The trouble with black-and-white thinking is that it keeps us at one extreme or the other, and that can mean we find ourselves stuck as we become inflexible to other possibilities. This stance often leads to conflict and emotional upset in our most valued relationships and certainly within ourselves. So why does this happen, and what can we do about it?
Author and Researcher Nancy Kline (2020) explores the notion that the polarisation of ideas within individuals is, perhaps surprisingly, less about the disagreement itself and is driven more by a disconnect within our inner world and with each other. Kline argues that when we find ourselves in a tricky position of being sure yet being disagreed with, we can undergo a phenomenon similar to that which is experienced when we are under physical threat. Her research has shown that internally, our emotions can become hijacked as soon as we encounter a definite ‘this is right, you are wrong’ response. Ever found yourself ‘digging in’ when arguing with someone? Even when you know in your wise mind you are wrong? Turns out you can forgive yourself as there is a scientific reason for it; simply put, our system thinks we are under attack, so it tells us we must defend our position. Because our complex brains see disagreement as a threat, without any other options, it immediately begins activating the hormones that control our fight, flight and freeze responses. Alongside other issues, this often-distressing process means we might struggle to consider other more ‘middle path’ possibilities or shades of grey. Instead, we become entrenched in our thinking. Of course, this may not be a big deal if we are just looking at social media, and nobody is around to disagree with us. However, what can be done if this emotional hijacking happens frequently, and we find ourselves dysregulated and in conflict with others over the holiday season?
As an Integrative DBT practitioner, it may not surprise you if I were to suggest practising mindfulness of your thoughts and feelings while noticing what is going on in your body. That would be an excellent start, after all, we can’t change what is occurring if we don’t know it is happening in the first place. Yet, perhaps a more in-depth and unexpected solution that could bring some respite from our struggles would be to consider the D in DBT. At the heart of dialectics is an understanding that reality often consists of seemingly polarised opposites, and it can be helpful to notice both stances. However, the principle goes further, suggesting it isn’t enough to accept that both things can be true simultaneously. If we were to stop there, we would be missing the richness and colour that creates our joint experience. Instead, a dialectical stance allows us to glimpse another explanation amongst the absolute opposites. And here is the exciting bit; this synthesis is validating and freeing because it includes a little of both ‘truths’ while creating something new, and this new lens has more wriggle room for other possibilities!
For instance, what if we were to go back to the family snaps on our Instagram feed and think dialectically? We might not say the images around the family’s festive and flawless dining table made them ‘perfect’ (even though, granted, it looks like there isn’t a hair or a cracker out of place). Nor that they can’t be happy if they’re on Instagram all the time (I mean, you’re right, it does seem odd that there were 263 snaps posted before breakfast). Instead, we might create a new view that says, ‘this family has the appearance of perfection, but the reality is no family is without its difficulties’. From this position, as you scroll through the pictures, you are more likely to remain curious about other possibilities and unknowns. Of course, as you drink your morning brew, you may still contemplate just how the cutlery seemed to match kid’s outfits or wonder why your family has never managed a decent group selfie. Alternatively, you may decide to get on with your day, safe in the knowledge that nothing is quite as simple as it first appears.
This example shows how anyone can apply DBT principles. Whenever we find ourselves stuck, or having complicated feelings about that difficult family member, dialectical thinking offers us a new lens. From this vantage point, we can choose to accept that reality, and ‘truth’, will always be in a state of flux and subject to change as and when we consider new ideas. What a relief! With this newfound freedom, we can remain regulated and connected as we open our minds to exploring the endless possibilities that come together to create a kaleidoscope of colourful perspectives!
What new dialectics will you discover over the festive season?