A practice for the gray areas
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a “dialectic” refers to the idea of two truths being true simultaneously, even if they seem to oppose one another. It’s a practice in removing ourselves from black-and-white, either-or thinking, which is one of the greatest limiting factors in our collective ability to grow. We’re so used to seeing things as one-or-the-other and never as both-at-once that we unconsciously choose a side and live there. It needn’t be so. It’s not an easy transition always, but here’s the trick that I learned this first year in grad school to become a clinical social worker (which is a long way to say “therapist”):
Whenever you’re about to say “but,” replace it with “and,” or “and it is also true that.”
Fair warning: everyone that is very used to standing at the either-or edge of the both-and lake will not be amused by your commitment to swimming. They may have never even heard of such an outrageous idea, as I had not, of allowing both things to be true at once.
And for good reason. How can we rectify something good as also having bad elements, and vice versa? That makes the black-and-white territory quite gray indeed, and, my friends, we are fucking terrified as a people of the gray area.
It means we have to dig deeper to figure out how we feel about things, what our actual motivations are. The gray area removes the ease of simply choosing a side and leaving it at that. The other factor is this: anyone who has been on the receiving end of a “this truth, but this truth” knows that anything before the “but” is lost to oblivion forever.
I love you, but I can’t stay.
See how that works? We can’t even hear the shit before the “but,” and for good reason. “But” ends dialogue. It says, “the first truth is not nearly as important as the second truth.” Turning it into, “I love you, and I can’t stay,” opens a door for exploration, and values the first truth just as much as the second.
I encourage you to give it a try, and I’m going to give you some examples from my own life, because it took me a good while to commit to the both-and—and now I’m sold for life.
I am angry at the state of the world, and it is also true that I am in love with every small beautiful moment of each day.
I am confident, and sensitive.
Fully experiencing grief is the only way to move through it, and it is also true that grief hurts in ways that tear apart the very soul.
Being poor has made me resourceful beyond measure, and it is also true that poverty fucking sucks.
I’m the only one that can repair the damage incurred to me, without my consent, during my childhood, and it is also true that that’s really unfair.
The difference in how the statements feel when you remove the “but” has a palpable feel to me. Do they for you? It allows the reality of pain to exist without denying the reality of responsibility, or the reality of what seems to oppose the pain. It allows us some small measure of liberation without losing accountability.
The binary of either-or is a lie. As humans, we’re meant to swim in the both-and lake, and explore the deeper-than-surface shit. Joy can include grief, and pain can include beauty. It often does, without us even realizing it.
Side Note: I also want to make note that this can be used by people with nefarious intent and it’s important to be able to recognize that. Any tool for healing will be twisted as tool for control by those who need control, even if they don’t realize they desperately need it. For example:
“I hurt you, and my love for your made me do it.”
Be always sure to listen to exactly whom is taking responsibility for the gray area in which they wade.
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Thanks for reading!