Much has been written about Yes and No. Two simple words that powerfully express our desire. Each can start or stop the course of major events in life. Yes - to start a new career or even perhaps turn a relationship into a marriage. No - to continue on and wait for another door to open.
Yet they are perhaps the clearest example of polarity in our culture and in our language. Humans like to compartmentalize. We put things in boxes, literally and cognitively. It helps us to make sense of our world. When we’re faced with a decision where it’s hard to land on a ’yes’ or a ‘no’, we often ask ourselves what’s the right or wrong decision. The best or worst decision. What’s going to be the successful decision and not the one that fails us? Our language is full of polarities. Right, wrong. Good; bad. Best; worst. Success; failure. Perfect; imperfect. Flawless and flawed.
Our society values polarities. Yes and No have helped us do amazing things. They are not to be underestimated, especially if you’re flying a jet or performing surgery. But nuance seems to have lost ground to polarities. It’s not surprising. Our politicians and leaders use emotive language to polarize an issue and grab our attention without specifics. For instance, ‘Make America Great Again’– how exactly is “Great” defined?
We swipe left and right and up and down in all aspects of our lives. In the arts, indeed since the dawn of entertainment, we’ve been enchanted by characters that portray polarities. Good and evil, the Prince and the Pauper, the Beauty and the Beast, the Monster and the Hero, the Devil and the God. But as stories unravel, we begin to appreciate the subtlety in people, characters and issues. The fairytale isn’t truthful enough. We begin to see the Beast as something more than an angry creature who feels like we do, while Beauty begins to recognize her judgements. Slowly we move toward the middle ground. Love sometimes catches us off guard like this. Have you ever fallen for someone you didn’t like at first?
As a species, we are blessed with truly incredible brainpower. We’re hard wired to tell ourselves stories. The power to imagine future possibilities separates the human species from others. Where we get caught up is polarizing our thinking on complex and emotional parts of life. Black and white thinking. Polarisation sometimes gives us comfort, albeit partially and often temporarily. We don’t allow nuance to emerge fully, often being in too much of a hurry to let the middle ground come to light. We make quick judgements that are met by the grateful arms of polarities. The very worst of our society brings this to light in racism, sexism and prejudice.
Sometimes yes or no, good or bad simply doesn’t fit. There’s neither a right nor a wrong answer. Sometimes the ‘bad guy’ has a little more good than first imagined. Sometimes the ‘right job’ has some things you might not like too. Sometimes that person in the street isn’t perfect or flawed, they’re human. Sometimes an experience has more to offer than you once thought. Perhaps life is just as much about the experiences in between. The nuance. The middle ground.
Yes and No has a place but don’t forget ‘Maybe’.
- Notice when you’re polarizing a complex and nuanced part of life. Why is it easy to jump to one side of an opinion? Is your thinking based on your ideas about something or someone? Is it a story you tell yourself or is it based on facts or data?
- Listen to your language. Notice when you use words that leave little room for nuance.
- Be aware of when fantasy encourages you to polarize an issue. For instance, if you’re hiring someone, notice that it’s easy to elevate their status, their potential well above that which is plausible, despite the fact you’ve probably only met them a handful of times.
- Invite in others to help add colour to your thinking. Diverse opinions often shine a light on polarities that might be tripping you up.
- Pause. Pause. Pause. If you can pause and reflect on your thinking – do it.
Robert Rees is a Director of The Grove Practice in London. He is a Psychotherapist and Executive Coach and co-founder of The Grove Practice At Work an organization committed to bringing good mental health to the workplace.