Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Reel Therapy

What Dialectical Behavior Therapy and HBO's "The Wire" Have In Common

The unifying philosophy of a hit television series and a hit psychotherapy

Posted Jul 15, 2011

Dialectical Behavior therapy is a treatment approach that teaches more skillful living to Borderline Personality Disordered individuals. It's an approach that combines problem-solving and reality testing techniques for emotion regulation with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindful awareness that is largely derived from Buddhism.

These are just the core skills that are taught, but I would argue that these handy tools are secondary to what makes an inherently unhealthy psyche much healthier. To me, the real meat and potatoes of the approach is the very specific mindset that can take hold, and stems from the dialectical philosophy that is implicitly and explicitly taught along with the skills.

There's a saying in DBT that patients are doing the best they can, and need to do better. There's another saying: "In a river you can never be standing in the same spot twice." The implications of these philosophical statements are the base for a healthy worldview. Here's a few more ideas borrowed from dialectical philosophy: everything is transient and finite, everything is composed of contradictions, gradual change comes in helical not circular form (I have no idea what the last one means but it sounds smart).

What all this means is that it is very important to harbor a perception of self and others that uses "both, and" not "either, or." Most unhealthy people bring a distorted, biased imbalance to this. Individuals who fall into anxious or depressed moods temporarily see themselves and others in negative, unstable, mistrusting ways, where things are "either" good "or" bad. People with BPD have a more ingrained filter of distortion, in which they see people as all good or all bad, all the time — never somewhere in between, never in flux. It's black and white with little appreciation for what's in-between. People are automatically divided into ally or enemy camps which is why people with BPD are known for splitting others (recruiting or attacking instead of befriending). It means that as soon as a loved one makes a mistake, he or she can no longer be trusted; it means that as soon as you are fired from a job you are the victim of an unfair world. It's the thing that underlies the pattern of interpersonal conflict, emotional instability and upheaval, and general sense of abandonment that defines BPD.

The dialectical philosophy teaches someone to slow down and revamp this pervasive filter of life by teaching ways of recognizing and reinforcing a "both, and" perspective in which the world becomes a little grayer, a little more nuanced and complex and, in turn, a little easier to understand and navigate through. As "bad" feelings or encounters are held along with "good" experiences or ideas (i.e. I failed this exam, but my friends still love me) in simultaneous fashion and the meat cleaver that had been used to divide experiences into positive and negative is replaced with a scalpel then stability sets in. The self and other people become sources of mild fluctuation instead of violent disruptions.

How does all this relate to "The Wire?" "The Wire" is a fantastic, critically acclaimed HBO series that ended a few years ago but has only increased in notoriety since. In a recent article, Chuck Klosterman discussed the worldview endorsed by "The Wire."

He said this: In "The Wire," everyone is simultaneously good and bad. The cops are fighting crime, but they're all specifically or abstractly corrupt; the drug dealers are violent criminals, but they're less hypocritical and hold themselves to a higher ethical standard. There were sporadic exceptions to this rule, but those minor exceptions only served to accentuate its overall relativist take on human nature: Nobody is totally positive and nobody is totally negative.

This is perhaps why the show is so popular. It depicts (and in so doing transmits to the audience) a worldview that is grounded in reality. It notes that, at times, people are messy and unpredictable and that the world can be unfair, but if you acknowledge all that up front and carefully follow when people and situations shift back and forth from "good" to "bad" then it's relieving and clarifying. You get good at understanding why certain things happen (particularly within yourself), and you get even better at seeing the shifts and reacting effectively. Watching "The Wire" not only enveloped us in a realistic, complicated fictional world that was worth being enveloped in, but helped us to think in tolerable doses about how such a world works and how to deal with it.

Watching the show not only facilitated an understanding of dialectical philosophy, but it also exuded its own dialect — it was intriguing and enlightening all at once.

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