A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

To Be Polarized Is to Be Paralyzed

Nuanced thinking is like WD-40 for the mind.

I'm right, you're wrong. I'm good, you're bad. When we demonize or idolize, we eliminate the middle ground. It's all or nothing. It's black or white. There is no shade of gray. When we scapegoat and play the blame-game, we eliminate the space for compromise. There is no room to talk. There is no where to go. To be polarized is to be paralyzed.

I would guess that you can relate to these all-too-familiar dynamics. Most intense arguments are fueled by this kind of projection and splitting. Ever really get going in a fight, so much so that you feel you have temporarily lost your mind? You get so heated up that you dig your heels in, deeper and deeper, defending your point of view to the nth degree—even though some part of you is looking on, recognizing that you have taken it too far.

Maybe you get mean. Or you forget what you were arguing about in the first place. Or you find yourself making up things to justify your point, even though they don't really make sense—even to you. Or, if you run out of ideas to support your point, maybe you turn the tables and accuse your partner of all kinds of stupidity and cruelty—even though you know him to be a mostly reasonable person.

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The farther the split, the more difficult it is to repair it. The more invested we are in our point of view as being right—morally or intellectually or practically superior—the more difficult it is to listen to another's point of view. The more invested we are in viewing the other person as wrong—silly or ridiculous or stupid or bad—the more difficult it is to compromise, change, and find a way out or a way through.

This dynamic greatly affects our everyday relationships. It sours marriages and friendships. It keeps alive old and stale grievances. It perpetuates family feuds. When these dynamics dominate on a broader scale—such as in politics and economics—it keeps us from solving problems that need to be solved and really can be solved.

So what can we do to help ourselves when we get polarized in these ways?

Someone must have the humility to start first. I think that is the hardest part. But it is also the hopeful part. If you can extend the olive branch, there is a chance that a connection can be made. If you can admit that you might be wrong about some things, there is a chance that what you're right about can be heard. If you can find what you have in common—if you can remember that, fundamentally, you want some of the same things—then you have a chance to find a middle ground. If you can forgive, there is a chance that you can heal.

But above all, if you can get out of your own polarized point of view, you can start to think again. And thinking is the real deal. If you can think in a nuanced way that appreciates the gray, you get your mind back. You even might be able to help someone else get his mind back. But, at the very least, you can free yourself from the paralysis of projection and splitting. You see, nuanced thinking is like WD-40 for the mind. It loosens up what was stuck and gets things working again.

Copyright 2011 by Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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