As humans, we like to keep things simple. Our brains are designed to put things into nice, neat, and uncomplicated categories. This sorting and categorizing serves an important purpose: it’s a lot easier for us to interact with our world this way. Everything seems to settle into a nice category. Happiness and sadness. Good people and bad people. Healthy food and unhealthy food. True and false. Jean Piaget, a prolific child development researcher and psychologist suggests that when new information comes into our brains, we have two options: fit it nicely into an existing category or schema (assimilation) or do a complete overhaul of the categories to fit the new information (accommodation). At some point each of us realizes that our world is not so simple and our categories do not seem to fully encapsulate our experiences with life.
My 1st Experience
In my first year of graduate school I learned about the idea of holding two ideas at once or embracing the “and”. Although this sounds cheesy, this idea truly transformed my life. Living in a world of “and” acknowledges that two things can be equally true and valid, even if they are seemingly opposing. This makes the part of our brain that likes to assimilate things into nice categories feel a little attacked and verrrry skeptical.
Here are some examples of what holding two things at once might look like: my experience in graduate school was fantastic and beautifully transformative AND someone else in my program may have had a difficult, painful experience. Food can be delicious AND seem very threatening. I can feel both overjoyed for a friend on her wedding day AND experience a deep sense of loss and yearning for my own relationship. For me, I’ve found that living in the “and” is the sweet spot. Being able to fully embrace that two seemingly contradictory things can be true feels so entirely freeing to me.
Once I embraced this idea, I felt like I had permission to live in the gray area and to explore the nuance that undoubtably was present in many of my emotional experiences. Gone were the days of trying to shut down the parts of me that were difficult to reconcile with the dominant narrative or what I was “supposed” to be experiencing. Gone were the days of invalidating my own experiences to make way for someone else’s. Gone were the days where “good” people were infallible and “bad” people, irredeemable. It’s nice to let go of the rigidity and fully embrace and accept that I don’t have to force anything into a tidy box or category…AND this process can be very uncomfortable for our order-loving-category-driven brains (see what I did there?)
I once brought up this idea to a client (I bring this idea up with lots of my clients because I love it so much). She was really struggling with holding two ideas at once. It was even quite painful for her. As we were talking, I acknowledged how uncomfortable and unnatural it felt for us to hold two things at once. My client took a breath, looked down, and became really thoughtful for a moment. She finally looked up at me and replied in a matter-of-fact voice full of resolve, “It is…but I guess that’s why we have two hands.” Her words were profound and rang with truth. We are well equipped to hold two things at once.
So, what’s the problem with holding one thing and keeping everything in nice tidy boxes? Why do we have to do the work to really embrace the idea that two things can coexist? If you’re like me, you know that life is richer and more nuanced than our categories allow, but sometimes want to act from a place of simplicity. It would save me a lot of time and energy if the world was as simple as “good” and “bad” emotions, people, foods, etc. However, I also believe that my experience would be much less rich and meaningful if I always assimilated new information into rigid schemas and never had to revamp, reorganize, and overhaul the perfect and tidy categories that govern the way I interact with the world.
The rigid categories we’ve created for ourselves may be our brain’s way of trying to help us, but we might often find ourselves frustrated when we try to fit abstract ideas and feelings into these more rudimentary boxes. It just doesn’t seem to fit or feel quite right to have to pick one thing and abandon the other. As we let ourselves make room for two things, as we make room for the “and,” we are better able to see things as they really are. Categorizing is nice, but it’s not always accurate or holistic. I have found that embracing the nuance that comes with the “and” is really important for mental health, for connecting with others, and for understanding the world around us.
So, how do we start going about embracing the “and” or holding two ideas at once? It takes deliberate tracking of our thoughts and challenging ourselves to take a step back from the black and white. For me, embracing the “and” has required four main steps:
- Be mindful of your thoughts. It seems like our thoughts sometimes become so automatic, a constant narration in the back of our minds, that we don’t take time to recognize them or challenge them. If we ever want to embrace the “and” and reject the idea that things are perfectly spelled out in black and white, we must be mindful of when we fall into this thought trap.
- Give yourself permission to believe that things aren’t always black and white. When we begin challenging our thoughts, it can feel very unsettling. It helps to recognize that our culture, society, and brains are encouraging us to see things a certain way, but we’re making an active decision to see that things don’t have to be so rigid and categorized.
- Stay with the discomfort. As you begin to reject the black and white thinking, be gentle with yourself and remind yourself that the “and” will help make you feel more at peace and capture your experience better. Persist when it feels uncomfortable, softly prompting yourself to remember that you’re doing a hard thing by reorganizing the nice and tidy categories.
- Enjoy a more rich and full experience and embrace the feeling of freedom that comes when you’re able to stop the constant battle within your mind. Recognize how nice it is to sit in the nuance of an experience, although likely very different than how you’ve done things before. Remember this feeling, and the next time you’re tempted to think in black and white, try your hand at embracing the “and.”
Although this process can seem a little arduous, I’ve found that the results are worth it. My entire mindset changed as I was able to more fully embrace the “and,” the nuance, the gray area, and holding two things at once. Remember, “that’s why we have two hands.” Be sure that you’re using them both!