Navigating the Intersection of Work and Mental Health

Working Better and Stressing Less

Ideas on work and mental health

What does “dialectical” mean in counseling?

Today I looked up the definitions of “dialects” and “dialectical” in several dictionaries to provide a great textbook definition of this concept, often used in counseling. There were too many to count so I’ll just use the first few words from the Wikipedia entry: “Dialectic is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to European and Indian Philosophy since antiquity.”

In counseling, dialectics are a means of exploration we use to better understand seemingly contradictory experiences of thought, feeling, and behavior. Dialectics may help alleviate cognitive dissonance (WIKIPEDIA LINK) or the discomfort we experience when experiences are at odds with each other or our belief structure. They help us expand our understanding and experience to make room for contradictions that exist in reality.

One way this emerges in counseling is in the apparent paradox of fault and responsibility. It is absolutely never a client’s fault that they have a mental illness. Yet, it is always their responsibility to seek help and employ it in alleviating their own suffering, if the illness is causing problems for them. It is not an alcoholic’s fault that they drink, yet it is entirely their responsibility to change their relationship with alcohol, if it is problematic. Exploring the concepts of fault and responsibility can help clients have a more three dimensional view of their suffering and potential means to change it. 


Acceptance and approval is another apparent paradox we commonly explore with dialectics. We can accept suffering without approving of it. To accept is to recognize and perhaps “allow to be” while approval is LIKING it. I accept my property tax bill each year. I even respond to it by sending a check. It is. C’est le vie! That is life. I do not however, approve of it. I actually rather dislike October and that invoice, but I accept it.


In relationships, dialectical approaches are particularly effective and painful at exploring what’s broken or even, what works! One couple might be completely in love and completely unable to forge a daily partnership together. Another couple might have absolutely no sexual chemistry and characterize their marriage as completely satisfying and joyful.

Dialectics bring dimension and color to thoughts, feelings, relationships, and behaviors that let us explore them more thoroughly and also take an enormous amount of energy to employ. Where might it be effective for you to invest some energy in exploring the apparent opposites that coexist in your own life?

Katie Playfair