The Diana Dialectic

One of the more challenging aspects of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)[1] is walking the dialectic. While the core components of distress tolerance skills are readily applicable to daily life, I often find myself struggling to explain the benefit of holding two opposite emotions in the mind without being swayed by either.

Invariably clients ask: “Why would I want to do that? Being angry is hard enough. Why would I want to create space to feel love and anger fully at the same time? If I can’t stop feeling these things, can’t you at least help me to pick one and deal with that [emotion]?” But thanks to Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot, I now have a DBT avatar to share with clients, a character who embodies both the principles of dialectical thinking and whose actions demonstrate the benefits of walking the dialectic: Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Wonder Woman of the World.

Wonder Woman movie promotional photo.

Diana walks the superhero dialectic without denying the contradiction of being both a powerful warrior and an emotional being. In fact, it is her ability to hold this dialectic in balance that helps her to succeed throughout the narrative of the film. During the pivotal No Man’s Land sequence, Diana’s awareness of the superhero dialectic helps her to identify her role in the battle. Her emotions lead her towards compassion and her heroic training helps her to confirm that No Man’s Land is the place to fight. Had she chosen one skill set over the other she would not have succeeded: it is the combination of emotional connection with the stranded villagers and her heroic abilities that empowered both Diana and her fellow soldiers to fight and win the day.

Wonder Woman tells her companions, "Stay here. I'll go ahead."

Diana’s compassion for herself and others enables her to hold these two competing superhero ideas, without bending under their weight or choosing one over the other. Clients often struggle to make space for contradicting feelings about a person or situation. By inviting clients to see that holding two opposing ideas or emotions at once can empower a person to greater action, Wonder Woman helps us to demonstrate for clients the purpose of DBT. Additionally, Wonder Woman shows clients that self-compassion can be the key to creating balance within such a dialectic. Self-compassion needn’t be a passive practice. It can be the vital act of a warrior. In fact, it is Diana’s compassion for herself and all of humanity that helps her avoid the usual superhero pitfalls of brooding despair (Batman) or self-isolation (Superman).

Diana looks emotionally at her mother.

I plan to continue inviting Diana into the therapeutic space. Her narrative helps clients to see dialectical work as not just an important part of their therapeutic journey but as a vital tool for superheroes and warriors. The Diana dialectic empowers clients to be the change they wish to experience in their own lives while holding space for the many contradicting feelings such change brings.

Wonder Woman kneels with her sword and shield.
Diana poses with her heroic companions at the end of Wonder Woman.
  1. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an evidenced based practice created by Marsha Linehan, PhD, that teaches individuals how to decrease anxiety, increase emotional regulation, and mindfully approach triggers or upsetting events in daily life.