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Both/And: Tolerating Ambiguity Using Dialectical Thinking

As humans, we’re often primed to view things in all-or-nothing terms, through a binary (e.g., this or that, right vs. wrong) approach rather than a more nuanced understanding. Both/and thinking, a concept from the world of dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT), is a useful approach particularly when sitting with ambiguity or uncertainty. Both/and thinking has garnered a lot of attention in the world of leadership, personal growth, business, creativity and design and more.

The past 2.5 years during the pandemic have illustrated that, try as we might, one of the few givens in life is change and uncertainty. That means that although we might strive for things to be a particular way, we often experience multiple emotions at the same time - each of them valid - or have to reckon with holding multiple truths at once, as uncomfortable as that may seem. The person who raised us may also be someone who has caused us tremendous harm. That old friend we believe isn’t really invested in the friendship may surprise us tomorrow with an incredible act of generosity and care.

It’s tempting to stay in the either/or zone and focus on how option A is the correct response over option B. But both/and mindset can be used to move through rigid thinking patterns and allows us to reconcile seemingly disparate truths, realities or perspectives. For instance, we may experience feelings of shame, guilt and anger toward a loved one, and feel simultaneously relieved and saddened when we learn that the loved one is ill or we may not see them again.

Below are some examples of either/or thinking and both/and thinking. Notice which ones stand out to you. Which feel challenging to connect with and which resonate? What examples can you create for yourself? What are some ways you might practice both/and thinking in your own life?

  • Either/or thinking: I feel hopeless. Nothing will get better, it’s impossible to do anything.

  • Both/and thinking: Sometimes I feel hopeless and in despair, and I can also find small ways to take care of myself and to care for others.

  • Either/or: I wish I didn’t feel this way. It’s a waste of time and energy.

  • Both/and: It’s hard to be with these feelings when I’m sad and angry. I wish that I didn’t have to experience this amount of suffering, and I also know that this is part of grief.

  • Either/or: No one can help me or understand what I’m going through (e.g., a breakup, depression, trauma responses, etc.)

  • Both/and: No one may understand my specific experience (e.g., grief, etc), but people in my life are still able to support me in other ways.

  • Either/or: I should be over this by now, I don’t know why I’m having such a difficult time accepting my loved one’s death.

  • Both/and: It’s common and human to struggle to fully “accept” the loss of a loved one. There is no timeline for grief or endpoint for these feelings to “be done with.” All emotions are valid, and it’s absolutely ok to have moments in which I struggle more than others.


Jen Brown, LICSW is a licensed independent clinical social worker who has been in clinical practice since 2014. She received her MSW and Certificate in Urban Leadership in clinical social work from Simmons University School of Social Work. She has worked in outpatient mental health and integrative settings in community health centers, college mental health, and in affordable housing. Jen has experience working with depression and other mood disorders, anxiety, trauma/PTSD, substance use and addiction, ADHD, identity shifts/adjustment issues, chronic illness, body image concerns, and relationship issues.

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