Depth Psychotherapy in Petaluma ~ Sonoma County
Polarization & Its Role in Suffering
The mind tends toward black-an-white thinking. It is a well-learned habit developed over thousands of years that is engrained in the structure of our brains. In moments of danger, black-and-white thinking serves us well – we must make snap decisions to ensure our safety and the safety of those we love. Is it good or bad? Safe or unsafe? Quick answers to these questions propel us toward action that, in some cases, could save our lives.
However, black-and-white thinking in day-to-day life, in which we find ourselves caught at the extreme of either pole, inevitably leads to suffering. As she developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, Marsha Linehan drew from her study of Zen Buddhism to identify and work with the suffering inherent in black-and-white thinking. Linehan used the concept of the dialectic – that is, that two opposite truths can be true at the same time – to provide a framework for holding the paradoxes inherent to being human.
Holding two opposites truths at the same time is an important capacity developed in depth psychotherapy. Jung referred to this process as the tension of the opposites and encouraged his clients to hold two opposite truths simultaneously until some new emerged. This new, “third thing” often integrates aspects of both poles in a new understanding that can be brought into the world by the individual. Holding both extremes can be very difficult though. I often tell my clients that it requires a big set of harms to hold all there is to hold sometimes. In the wake of tragedies such as the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, this could not be truer.
Taking the Pulse Nightclub shooting as an example, what does it mean to move out of polarized, black-and-white thinking into dialectic thinking? First we must consider what polarized thinking looks like when faced with immense tragedy. Polarized thinking, in its limited imagination, would have us mired in grief. We would despair over the loss of life and come to view the world as a sad, sick, or dangerous place. Or, perhaps, we would come to fear or despise the “other” that the shooter, Omar Mateen, represents. In doing so, we would miss the incredibly generous, compassionate responses that have taken place – candle light vigils, fundraisers for the victims’ families, etc. We would simply fall into a state of despondency about the state of the world. At the other extreme of polarized thinking, we might become “Pollyanna,” solely focusing on the positive seen in the wake of the shooting. We would ignore the pain of the tragic event by saying to ourselves something like, “What is meant to be is meant to be.” We would work to keep ourselves from feeling the immense pain of the tragedy by “looking on the bright side.” Either end of this extreme leads to suffering, whether we like it or not; however, each leads to a type of suffering that does not lead us anywhere, as true suffering is meant to.
To step out of polarized thinking and to hold both the tragedy and the beauty in the world requires a strong, flexible heart. We must at once allow ourselves to be affected by what we hear of the latest war, massacre, and genocide, while also holding true that there are small and large wonders all around us if we are paying attention. Mary Oliver, the beloved poet, has written the bulk of her incredible poetry out of inspiration she takes from simply paying attention – to the blade of grass, the grasshopper, the goldfinches – small, daily goings-on that pervade our at times broken world. To step out of polarized thinking, we hold the beauty while remembering the pain, and hold the pain while remembering the beauty. Knowing there is a genocide taking place across the globe, we hold the door open for the stranger, say hello to our neighbor. Seeing a beautiful sunrise, we remember those in war torn nations, or those seeking asylum. I often tell clients we need a big set of arms to hold so much, but to do otherwise is to fall prey to a limited imagination that lacks the medicine this world needs. By holding both, we can become motivated, not mired or veiled in denial. We can take action to better things for others.
Sil Machado, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist offering psychotherapy, counseling, and neurofeedback in Santa Rosa, CA. His unique approach incorportates years of training and experience working with individuals with anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, relationship problems, and LGBT issues. He blends depth psychotherapy approaches with cutting edge methods, including EMDR and neurofeedback. He is a therapist offering psychotherapy in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Healdsburg, and Sebastopol.