My Dialectical Life

Therapy has changed my life by helping me transform rigid thought patterns I didn’t even know I had to more fluid and flexible ones.  When I first started, I was able to acknowledge that the world existed in shades of gray, yet I forced myself into a life of black and white, rigid and unforgiving, in which “all-or-nothing” was the governing mindset.  Then I leaned into the dialectics of my life.  And everything changed.

In the spirit of vulnerability, I will begrudgingly share that I had been learning bits and pieces of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for years before I truly understood what was meant by ‘dialectical.’  I was learning the skills with no understanding of the overarching theory behind them.  Then my therapist used the word ‘dialectic’ to describe something I was working through, and it clicked!  But I couldn’t admit this to her (seriously…I had been learning DBT skills for years at this point…), so of course I smiled and nodded to her as if I had understood what dialectical meant all along.

Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to see things from multiple sides or perspectives and then achieve reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information.  When I look back now, I realize I was frequently stuck in turmoil between two things that both seemed true, but couldn’t coexist together (or so I thought).  Flash back to the first time I came face to face with dialectics.

I read another page, tears streaming down my face, then quickly closed the book and jerked my head away.  I couldn’t bear the pain of one more word.   I was doing my therapy homework—to read the first chapter of the book “Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics.”  I had an amazing and supportive dad, who also happened to battle Goliaths by the name of alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression.  I forced my eyes back to the page that seemed to be describing me, the page that seemed somehow to know me, to see me.  I read, “Once upon a time, a little girl lived in the kingdom of childhood.  Her kingdom was the same as all other kingdoms, she was told, and she wanted to believe it…She wanted to believe that she and her kingdom were perfect…She thought, I will make it all right and perfect for everyone and then nothing could possibly be wrong…She became very good at the magic games and kept her feelings buried in a secret place…the hiding place was so good and so secret that soon even the princess forgot where it was and what was in there…The years in the kingdom passed and the girl became an expert in her royal role of ‘perfect princess’…always wondering who she really was…then the little girl in the kingdom grew up and became a woman.”  A large, wet tear blurred the ink on the page.  I criticized myself for not being able to get through the chapter.  I was frustrated with myself.  My cruel inner voice told me that I was weak for crying; that my feelings were wrong; and that I was a bad person for blaming my flaws on anyone but myself.  I painstakingly worked through this book for months, learning to understand my tendency toward perfectionism all the while facing a powerful dialectic along the way.

This is the first time I had to learn to accept that two opposites could both be true.  I could both love and honor my dad and his memory, while also feeling angry and sad at some of the things he put my family through.  This was tough work, dredging through the muck of childhood experiences and interpreting their potential effect in the shaping of who I was. It was even tougher work to shift from perfectionism to flexibility and from self-critical to nonjudgmental.  I now understand that it is not uncommon for children, especially girls, who grow up in dysfunctional families to adopt extremely high standards for themselves.  I also understand that my perfectionism was likely a combination of the nature of my genetics and brain chemistry and the nurture of my home environment and societal standards.  And most of all I understand that perfectionism worked in combination with my all-or-nothing thinking patterns to feed my inner voice some pretty nasty things to think and say about myself.  If I didn’t do it all right, I was all wrong.  If I messed up on a diet or exercise program just one day out of the week, I was a failure.  If the conversation didn’t go perfectly, I was a loser.  If my apartment wasn’t spotless, I was a mess. If I was too depressed to get off the couch, I was lazy. If I was too wired and anxious to sleep, I was crazy.

Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame.

Brené Brown

Without embracing imperfection, I wouldn’t have been able to soften my critical inner voice to find love and acceptance; I wouldn’t have been able to allow dialectical thinking to exist in my world; I wouldn’t have been able to effectively grow as a person.  And without acknowledging the dialectics in my life, I would still be stuck in that too familiar all-or-nothing thought trap, and thus harboring great suffering in trying to decide if it is all or nothing, instead of embracing that it can be all and nothing. I can both hate something that has happened to me, and accept it.  I can both regret something I’ve done, and forgive myself.  I can be both overwhelmed and frustrated by the amount of work I have yet to do in my mental health journey, and be proud of the work I’ve done so far.

Realizing that just because I still have bad days, just because I still make impulsive decisions, just because I handled a conversation with my husband poorly, just because I called off work for not being able to get out of bed, just because my anxiety still goes through the roof does not negate the hard work I have put in up to now.  I may not be who I want to be yet, but I sure am a hell of a lot further along than I was when the journey began.  We are all works in progress.  Take pride in the work you have done to be the person you are today; and use it as fuel to continue to work toward becoming the person you want to be.  And give yourself grace along the way.

A little progress each day adds up to big results

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