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The Self-Discovery Digest

by Elizabeth and Katherine Hirsh
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August 2010 Archives

We seem to be hard-wired to sort things and then assign values to each of the categories we create. When we designate opposites, we usually make one category the "good" one and the other the "bad" one. For instance, we say, "How tall is she?" rather than, "How short is she?" - seeming to indicate that we see tall as desirable and its opposite, short, as somehow less so.

But while categorization is a very natural mechanism, and can be valuable in many instances, it also causes problems. We get stuck in the tendency to see differences as requiring an opinion on who or what should be deemed "best" instead of supposing that there is something good about both ends of the spectrum. Let's look at some every day opposites in a way that values both sides:

• Tall can be good when you want to change a light bulb; short can be good when you are taking a long plane flight.
• Wet can be good when you are parched and thirsty; dry can be good when you are cold and soaked.
• Light can be good when you need to see clearly; dark can be good when you want to sleep.
• Young can be good when a task requires lots of energy; old can be good when a task requires lots of experience.

Let's expand this by seeing the benefits in opposing human qualities:

• Tough can be good when you want to tackle a difficult task; gentle can be good when you are supporting someone through a personal crisis.
• Anger can be good when you need to respond to an injustice; patience can be good when you want to make space for people to make amends.
• Exacting can be good when you need to get things absolutely right; flexible can be good when you are unsure of what's best.
• Assertive can be good when you need to speak up; receptive can be good when you want others to take you into their confidence.

Do you see yourself or others as tough or gentle, angry or patient, exacting or flexible, assertive or receptive? What if you saw yourself and others as "both, and?" What new options might arise if you had a greater openness toward opposites? Take a moment to consider whether a sorting process of opposing categories - friend or stranger, able-bodied or disabled, traditional or modern - is bringing you benefits or making it more difficult to discover where you and others have common ground. Things are often not as black and white as we imagine them to be. Insights spring from making the effort to see the nuances in ourselves, others, and situations. Connections are forged and nurtured, understanding and forgiveness is possible when everyone is allowed to be more human - good, bad, and in between.

Self-Discovery Tool Number 29
Choose a situation or person where there is a sense of opposition. Take another look - what might be gained from striving to see how the difference can be good, at least under certain circumstances? How might it be empowering to transcend the negative label previously given and instead permit a mixed, albeit more messy, view?