I want to tell you about a man. This man was the son of an unwed mother. He was left at a home for unwed mothers until he was two months old, that is until his young mother’s father decided to bring him and his daughter to live with him. He was then raised to believe that his mother was his sister and subjected to physical and psychological abuse. He became a very shy child and he had a speech impediment. As a result, he was the target of bullying. Despite all this, he became the Methodist youth fellowship vice president at his church. He took jobs cutting lawns and delivering newspapers. As an adult, he aimed his sights at success. He made sure to dress professionally and develop a sense for high quality. He became friendly. He developed amazing social skills. He was incredibly intelligent. He had a swift sense of humor. He studied the law. He got a degree in psychology. He got heavily involved in politics. He saved the life of a friend’s nice when she nearly drowned. He also saved lives when he worked on a crisis hotline. He also became a good skier. This man is Ted Bundy. An American serial killer and rapist. One of the most notorious criminals of the late 20th century.
I want to tell you another story. This time about a woman who was dangerously devout. She would go on to demanded that a divorce and remarriage ban should be part of the constitution. And yet hypocritically, showed public support for the divorce of one of her powerful, influential supporters the same year. She was vehemently against contraception. As well as women’s rights to body sovereignty. She called abortion “The greatest destroyer of peace today”. She opened care homes where hygiene was terrible. Needles were re-used. And disabled children were often tied to their beds. She forced baptisms there regardless of the individual’s wishes. Her main goal was not to be a social worker, but to promote Christianity. In fact, she said “There is always the danger that we may become only social workers… Our works are only an expression of our love for Christ. Her charity, which got millions donated annually went to the catholic church rather than to her care homes, which stayed in extremely poor conditions. She was often criticized because despite not having money for supplies, the walls of the care homes were covered with her pictures, like a shrine to herself. She believed that suffering brought you closer to God. This is Mother Theresa, the prominent and revered humanitarian considered to be a female saint.
I want you to notice how in both cases, you were thrown into a state of cognitive dissonance. Notice how the minute that you learned it was Ted Bundy we were talking about, all of his compassion inducing and positive traits seemed to suddenly be negated and not count. Notice how the minute you learned it was Mother Theresa we were talking about; you became uncomfortable and suddenly the positive feelings you felt about her seemed to be poisoned?
The reason this happened is because all of us struggle with dichotomy. We have an inability to hold dichotomy. As people, we struggle with grey. We want things to be black and white so we know what to do with them. It is a coping mechanism. We can’t seem to wrap our minds around the idea that nothing and no one is all good or all bad. And one does not negate the other…
That there is contrast in everything.
Part of awakening and expanding one’s consciousness is developing “And Consciousness”. To acknowledge nuances. To be able to perceive and integrate dichotomies. Doing so, evokes the feeling of being torn between two extremes or seemingly opposing truths. It feels a lot like being stretched. This stretching is a feeling that often implies that personal expansion is occurring. In the moment that we acknowledge a contradictory truth or state of being and expand wide enough to be able to hold both, as if holding both is ok, we have dis-identified with both extremes. We have ceased to become either or and instead have become the thing that is holding both. By holding both, instead of aspects of our self being separated by them, we have created a state of integration or wholeness within our being. To learn more about this, I encourage you to watch my video titled: And Consciousness (The Modern Day Replacement For The Middle Way).
Until people have made a practice and mastery of this, and are able to hold dichotomy, you will see this all good or all bad thinking. You will see it in every biased and slanted media story. You will hear it in the way people describe other people in their life. You will notice it in your own perception. People will continue to demonize and glorify, condemn and praise. And twist any information they come across to suit a black or white narrative.
This tendency can even go so far as “splitting”. Splitting is simply a magnification of this protection mechanism that people have, where they view things as all bad or all good. Splitting is the result of the perceived inability to manage all of the positive and negative qualities of others, yourself, situations, life and the world. When we can’t manage the mixed feelings, confusion and anxiety inducing chaos of positives and negatives (especially dichotomies) we ‘split’ things into ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ camps in our own consciousness. It is a form of fragmentation relative to our own perception. In a moment that we do this, we see a thing, ourselves, another person, a situation, the world, or life as all good or all bad. We slip into all or nothing thinking. Either we are amazing or garbage. Someone else is either a monster or a saint. Things are either always or never happening. We love something or hate it. We start to see things as absolutes, with no middle ground. And what makes splitting so incredibly obnoxious as a coping mechanism is that it is so inconsistent. It tends to swing from one extreme to the other. We may be perceiving that a person is wonderful and good and then one thing happens and it is as if that perception is entirely washed away and suddenly, all of that positive experience is gone. We have no access to it anymore. And instead, we perceive them as entirely destructive and bad. To the opposite, we may be perceiving that life is always a completely negative nightmare. And then something happens and it is as if the sunlight enters our perception and suddenly, we feel good about life. And life is going great.
Splitting often involves our memory. This means when we are in “all good mode” relative to something, we only have access to positive memories about it. And when we are in “all bad mode” relative to something, we only have access to negative memories about it. A variation of this is that we may twist our positive memories into negative ones or twist our negative ones into positive ones in order to fit our ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ narrative.
If you find yourself struggling with dichotomies or contradictory information or mixed feelings, ask yourself and answer honestly: What would be so bad if both were true? What would it mean? And why would that be so scary? For example, if a person was faced with negative information about someone that they consider a really good friend, they might ask themselves this question and the answer might be: I won’t know what I can and can’t trust them with. I can’t keep myself safe if I can’t predict them. Then ask yourself, How might you accommodate for or alleviate that fear?
If a person chooses one extreme or the other, it is because something is keeping them safe in being in that extreme. Looking at the other perspective invites the perception of unsafety. For example, seeing a person as a monster and not looking at the positive aspects of them, may keep a person feeling safe because it means that by contrast, they are good. If they are good, it means they are lovable and will line up with positive things instead of meaning that they are defective and will line up with painful things. Or for example, seeing your mother as all good, makes you feel safe because it means you can trust her and you don’t have to be on guard or feel the pain of separation from her that often occurs when you notice negative things about someone. So, figuring out how being stuck in a specific extreme keeps you feeling good/safe is an important part of developing AND Consciousness.
If you catch yourself slipping into black or white thinking, for example if you notice that you feel that someone is all bad or all good. Or if you start to perceive your world as going totally black. Or if you hear yourself say “always” or “never”, consciously look for whatever information brings you to a more objective, complete and whole view. For example, if you have been sucked into a negative view of yourself, deliberately look for positive things about yourself. If you hear yourself say always, deliberately remember times that were an exception to the rule. Not to negate your current perception, but to add to it.
You may need to do something to bring yourself out of fight or flight mode first. When we are in fight or flight mode, the part of our brains and bodies that can execute objective thinking is disabled. We need to notice how we really feel and from there, regulate our nervous system in order to not let our distress trap us in an all-negative thinking state. Or alternatively, we need to notice the reality of the unsafety we feel and regulate it, so as to not let ourselves be trapped in an all-positive denial state because we are trying to cope with our distress.
Black or white thinking is a form of cognitive distortion. It is to miss the whole, objective view of something. So, challenge yourself to hold dichotomy.