I listened to an amazing podcast this week with two of my favorite therapy gurus. Esther Perel was a guest on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, talking about partnerships, patterns and paradoxical relationships. There was so much good stuff, I’m probably going to listen again and perhaps write a second blog! But for now, I’m pondering their discussion about paradox.

I talk about paradox all the time in my therapy work with clients. This idea that two opposing things are often true at the same time. You love your spouse and you want to punch them in the face. You want to know what’s going on in the world and you can’t stand checking the news.

So much of our lives and the world take place in what Brené calls the “messy middle,” yet we constantly skew toward all-or-nothing/black-and-white thinking. We are happy OR we are sad. We like someone OR we don’t. We agree with a certain idea OR we think it’s stupid. We do this because we want things to be simple. We want to manage our anxiety by believing in absolutes. If this is right and that is wrong, then we understand the world, where we and others fit in it, and we can negotiate it with ease.

However, this isn’t the truth of the world.

The world is messy. People are messy. Relationships are hella messy! Choices are hard because there is often no clear answer. There is only gathering information, assessing what we’ve learned, and moving forward in the best way we know how. In the way that is best for us in that particular moment in time.

The paradox I really started thinking about this week was this whole bucket of things that make me feel good and the fact that I often don’t those things. (By the way, if I ever decided to get a PhD, this would be my research/dissertation topic because it’s such a universal conundrum).

It’s a paradox because I want to do the things that make me feel good but I also don’t want to do them.

Let’s use yoga as an example. I love yoga. I feel great when I practice yoga. Yet since my favorite yoga class went on hiatus at the start of COVID, I have not done yoga regularly. Why? Because I also don’t want to do yoga. I’d rather binge watch stupid Lucifer, or check Instagram, or drink some wine. Those aren’t bad things necessarily, but they don’t usually make me feel as good as doing yoga. Other examples of things I want to do more consistently: writing, exercise in general, eating healthy foods…you get the picture.

I’ve spent a lot of time beating myself up for not doing these things that I KNOW make me feel good. It feels liberating to realize that what makes it hard is that a part of me also doesn’t want to do them. That knowledge frees me up somehow. I don’t have to be angry with myself or beat myself up about it. I simply need to understand that both things are true and still find a way to gently encourage myself to act in my own best interest. I’m not crazy or weird. This is just how people are.

Esther talks about paradox as the opposite of polarization, and that feels profound to me. We often own parts of ourselves and disown other parts. We assign roles of good guys and bad guys to people out there in the world. We take a hard stand on certain issues. Yet I believe that what creates the space to actually make change is the ability to recognize paradox. To understand that complexity and oppositional forces exist everywhere all the time.

Recognizing and accepting paradox is a means of saying, “yes, all that is true, and now that I know it, what am I going to do?”