I think it was in social work school that I learned about one crucial aspect of mental health: the ability to hold two opposing thoughts or feelings at one time. Clients are often surprised when I bring up this dynamic and why it might be important. Why do you think it has merit? Consider how hard it is to hold conflicting feelings or thoughts, how we’d much rather they line up single file and visit us one at a time than come charging at us en masse. I know that’s how I feel about emotions and thoughts.
Here are some client examples:
- Caitlin wants to leave her emotionally abusive husband and is scared about losing their two-income status. She desperately wants out and also desperately fears not being able to live in her current lifestyle.
- Anne is plugging along in therapy to become a “normal” eater and also wants to lose weight quickly. She sometimes thinks eating intuitively is the way to go and sometimes wants to return to dieting in order to shed pounds quickly.
- Jack is a nurse in a COVID unit and is furious at patients coming in who have chosen not to be vaccinated because they put him and others at risk while also having compassion for them and their family as they’re dying.
- Teresa is angry most of the time at her narcissistic father and also recognizes that the two of them have had good times together.
Let’s face it, it’s unsettling to be pulled in two directions—especially when they’re completely opposite: wanting to leave and stay in a relationship, struggling with eating and weight, feeling fury and compassion toward someone, and experiencing anger and love for a parent.
Holding two opposing feelings or thoughts is difficult but doable. The first step is to recognize what you’re feeling or thinking. The second is to note what you experience as its opposite. The third step is to try experiencing them both for a minute. Toggle back and forth between them. Don’t push away either feeling or thought. Don’t judge yourself for what you feel or think or how well you’re doing embracing both emotions or thoughts.
When you are able to accept both, notice what that feels like inside you. Sit with the opposites and think calming, soothing thoughts. Remind yourself that although you might be uncomfortable, this is a healthier way of being than seeing things in an all-nothing fashion. Be proud of your ability to make your thoughts more flexible and move away from a rigid way of experiencing life.