When it comes to emotions, body signals or moods, it is easy to assume that we feel one thing at a time. But even a cursory look inside ourselves using our amazing super power of ‘interoception’ (that’s our ability to notice what’s happening inside us), reveals that we are often—maybe always—experiencing several emotions or internal signals at once. And sometimes they seem contradictory.
At times of transition such as changing jobs, travelling overseas, moving house or beginning a new relationship, we may feel excited and scared. When someone dies, especially after a long illness, we may experience a mixture of sadness and relief. During times of deep grief we can shock ourselves and scandalise others by flipping into a moment of black humour.
We can easily feel that we have one foot on the brake and the other on the accelerator when we experience a clash of two values such as planning carefully and acting spontaneously. And haven’t you ever felt ok and not ok at the same time? Coping and not coping? Finding your life both significant and insignificant? Perceiving time as going by in a flash and at a snail’s pace—all at the same time?
The ‘rub’ that is created by two seemingly opposing perceptions is sometimes called ‘cognitive dissonance’, but it does not always need resolution one way or the other. This play of opposites can have great resonance for us therapeutically (and spiritually). The ability to hold a paradox, and accommodate two or more differing emotions at the same time, are hallmarks of social and emotional maturity. Somehow, these seemingly opposing forces generate a beneficial heat that can open our perception to new possibilities and fresh ways of thinking. It is certainly the ‘blow your mind’ territory of Zen koans.
When people come to counselling or other human services such as social work, they are often in a kind of ‘liminal’ state—betwixt and between. Sometimes this is excruciatingly difficult. Something is no longer working but the new circumstances or way of being has not yet arrived. There is an internal (and often external) swirl of dissonance. In any therapeutic setting there is nearly always something to let go of and something to hold onto. This can be a good starting point for exploring the opposites at play, and visual resources can be supportive in this.
Facilitators may notice that some cards in The Nature of Strengths form a natural pair because the phrases on them seem to be opposites. For example: ‘Blending In’ and ‘Standing Out’; ‘Holding On’ and ‘Letting Go’; ‘Standing Solid’ and ‘Walking on Air’; ‘Listening Well’ and ‘Speaking Out’, ‘Taking Care’ and ‘Taking Chances’; ‘Warming up’ and Chilling Out’.
Conversation starters might include:
- Choose two cards that represent ‘opposite’ strengths to you. Can you share a story about a time when you used each of these strengths?
- How do these two strengths support each other? Oppose each other? Are they really opposites?
- How do you know when to use each of these strengths? What happens when you do one of these behaviours while excluding the other?
- How do you know when you have the balance right?
- Which of these strengths do you think your family, school, organisation, community or culture favours? Which ones are not valued as much? Are any seen as ‘weaknesses’?
- Have you ever deliberately decided to change from one strength to the opposite?
- Thinking of a challenge, decision or an upcoming project, how could you apply both of these strengths? Will one be more useful to you than the other at this time? Or can you find a blend of both?
- Is one of these strengths easier for you than the other? How could you learn to strengthen the one you need most at this time, even if it’s difficult?
- Who do you know who does this well? Can you learn from what they do?
- Will people be surprised to see you using this strength? What will they notice?
- What is one step you can take today?
By Karen Bedford