everything you need to know about dialectical behavior therapy
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Everything You Need to Know About Dialectical Behavior Therapy: By Experts

One of the most common reasons that people avoid therapy is because it feels overly theoretical. If you read about the development of therapy, you will hear a ton of analysis and prediction of how humans work that does not always reflect one’s own experience.

This can make therapy seem like it’s so focused on people as objects to be studied that it neglects them as people needing help. So, when a style of therapy described as “dialectical behavior therapy”, they understandably hear a bunch of fancy jargon that doesn’t mean much.

Today, we are going to define dialectical behavior therapy. We are going to talk about its goals and how it sets about accomplishing them. And we are going to do it so you can understand.

What is a Dialectic?

You can immediately see how the word “dialectic” has the component “dia” as in “dialogue”. That is because they share the same root word in Latin (dialectica), but with slightly different meanings. They are both words describing people talking, but with different outcomes.

A dialogue is when people talk with no certain goal. If you ask, “How was your day?” the question has many different answers. The day could be good, bad, neutral, or anything else.

But a dialectic is when people talk with a specific goal. If you ask, “What is two plus two?” the question has one correct answer. If you ask, “What happened when you were hurt?” the question is asking about one specific instance, which means there is one factual answer.

And this is critical in therapy where so much is either subjective or presumed to be subjective. If you experienced something traumatic, for instance, the question, “What happened when you were hurt?” might seem complicated. But the truth is that while the feelings around the situation are complicated, the situation itself can usually be described quite simply.

What is Behavior Therapy?

Behavior therapy was developed by a psychologist named B.F. Skinner, and it is one of the most controversial theories of human psychology since Freud’s psychoanalytical approach.

The idea is that humans might have consciousness, but that it has nothing to with our behavior. Just like how a dog can be taught to salivate at the sound of a bell as he begins to associate it with food, a human can be taught to associate different stimulus with different reactions.

In Skinner’s mind, there was no profound value to human will. People were defined by their reactions. You can see how this would ruffle a few feathers. But while the whole theory is up for debate, some components are almost certainly true, and some techniques worth using.

This is where the “therapy” part of behavior therapy comes into play. The idea is that a person has needs, and their psyche is in distress when these needs are not met or chronically antagonized. If a parent is abusive, then one learns that they are constantly unsafe.

But just as that constant unease is learned, something else can be relearned in place of it.

How is Dialectal Behavior Therapy Done?

So, we have a dialectal approach: A conversation between two people with a deliberate outcome. And we have behavior therapy: A style of therapy emphasizing the relearning of reactions to stimulus. How do these two things come together?

Step One: Mindfulness

The first step of dialectal behavior therapy is called “mindfulness”. It is the simple act of talking about how a person is feeling and acting in order to find out what is ailing them mentally.

Doing this helps start the process of managing their own reaction to their internal world. Everyone reacts to reflecting on their feelings differently. Some people get angry, some get anxious, some get happy, and some people just shut down and stop feeling much at all.

Mindfulness is not just examining your thoughts and feelings. It is also being aware of how you react to your thoughts and feelings.

Step Two: Distress Tolerance

The martial artist Bruce Lee was quoted as saying, “I don’t want an easy life, I want the strength to deal with a hard life.” That mindset defines how dialectical behavior therapy sets out to cultivate. Distress tolerance is the actual construction of good mental habits.

People have bad experiences and bad experiences often lead to negative thoughts and feelings. For instance, if a person has been physically assaulted frequently over a long period of time, they might flinch in response to someone raising their hand looking for a high five.

Now obviously a person should not be physically assaulted frequently over a long period of time. Solving that problem takes priority over solving the problem of the victim being jumpy.

But you have the ability to solve the problem of being jumpy by recognizing the cause, the effect, and working to alter how you react to these things.

Step Three: Interpersonal Effectiveness

After you have built up a tolerance to the distress caused by your internal anguish, then you can start to plan for how to deal with the external problem. Think of the previous step as dealing with a fear of heights and this step as actually climbing a mountain.

Because an important part of dialectal behavior therapy is not just getting over your fears, anxieties, and other mental health issues. It is also about being mentally healthy enough to respond to situations similar to that which caused those issues in the first place.

Going back to the physical assault example, interpersonal effectiveness means being able to react to someone trying to assault you without panicking. That means responding to the assault in a rational way without overreacting, underreacting, or freezing up.


As you can see, there are a lot of layers to dialectal behavior therapy that are both theoretical and practical. It seeks to do something concrete by appealing to the inherently abstract human mind. If you want to find out more, go to Epiphany Wellness website.

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