Everyday Bipolar Disorder and Order

The importance of owning your ambivalences, and how to do it

Posted Jan 15, 2015

Jessica runs hot and cold about her partner Mark.

It’s natural. She was badly hurt in her last relationship, which didn’t end that long ago.

Trouble is, she prides herself on her integrity by which she means her consistency, the very quality she lacks most as she toggles between talking like she’s romance’s greatest champion and talking like she’s a skeptical realist kicking the tires on her new guy. When she’s in either mood she assumes it the mood she’s always in. She can’t remember from mood to mood that her moods swing.

Mark tries to match moods with her but ends up being romantic when she’s skeptical and skeptical when she’s romantic. She blames him for his inconsistency.

But Mark is actually happy to admit he is of two minds. Who wouldn’t be? Partnership is so intimate you’ve got to be careful who you do it with. He doesn’t mind that she’s romantic and skeptical. Half in, half out. They haven’t been partners that long, so of course they’ll bounce between a committed “How can I make this work?” and a skeptical, “Can I make this work?”

Still, her proud claim of having “integrity” is beginning to cause him doubt. She claims consistency she doesn’t exhibit. He worries that she can’t see herself talking out of both sides of her mouth. He’s worried that she’s too proud for the kind of introspection he needs in a partner.

She’s not bipolar in the clinical sense but she hasn’t integrated her two sides. Call it Everyday Bipolar Disorder, and Mark’s alternative Everyday Bipolar Order, in other words integrating and bringing order to one’s ambivalent tugs.   

Everyday bipolar disorder is not a female or male problem; it’s a human problem. The solution is not amputating tugs but owning them. 

We drive each other crazy when we pretend we’re consistent and aren’t. Our proud claims of integrity make it always the other person’s fault that they’re not on whichever side of the coin we’ve flipped to. We demand that they indulge our inconsistency because we lack the self-discipline, or self-awareness to admit to it. 

Stevie Wonder sang, “Everybody’s got a thing but some don’t know how to handle it.” About Everyday Bipolar Disorder we might instead sing, “Everybody’s got two things but some don’t know how to handle them.” 

One way to integrate our natural ambivalences is to meditate a bit on the serenity prayer and its variations.  

The serenity prayer captures embraced ambivalence brilliantly. As a stated quest for wisdom, it admits we don’t always have it. By distinguishing the opposite tugs, serenity and courage, it inventories our ambivalence. The only thing as bad as accepting what we could improve, is trying to improve what can’t be improved. No wonder we’re torn. When you can’t tell whether something’s improvable, it's impossible to be sure.

The serenity prayer’s structure can be applied to all of the basic dilemmas we face. Good to meditate on them all. For example:

When should I commit and when should I pull back?

When should I attend to something and when should I ignore it?

When should I speak my mind and when should I bite my tongue? 

When should I delay gratification and when should I go for immediate gratification? 

Meditating on these serenity prayers is one tip for getting better at integrating your ambivalences.  Here are a few others: 

Become psychologically bi-curious: Notice when you talk out of both sides of your mouth, and be receptive when people suggest that you are. Don’t deny it automatically. Get curious about what tugs you in opposite directions. Do you find yourself wishing your partner would give you more attention and at the same time wishing you had more freedom? If so, admit it. There’s dignity to be had in admitting you want opposite things. Stop pretending you don’t.

Use Your U-Turn Signals: Get better at saying, “I’m of two minds.” Integrate into your self-reports more of those u-turn signals that make it easy to talk about being of two minds, terms like still, although, and yet, nevertheless, and, on the one hand…on the other hand. 

Go On A Platitude-Free Diet: Wean yourself off those pious half-truths trotted out as whole truths you never live by consistently. Things like:

Love is the answer (It isn’t. It’s the question: what to love and how?)
You can’t change anyone. All you can do is change yourself. (If so why are trying to convince us that you can’t change anyone?)

Don’t be judgmental (A two-faced statement, since the statement itself is a judgment.)

You can do anything if you put your mind to it (Not true. Not anything. We are some-nipotent and the question suggested by the serenity prayer is what is worth trying to change.)

These platitudes are just the sort of things people say when they’re of two minds but at the moment admitting to only one of them.

Don’t cut yourself “exempt by contempt” slack: Stop pretending that inconsistency is another persons' problem. Avoid playing the “exempt by contempt” game: “Me, inconsistent? How could I be? I hate inconsistency.” Assume that what other people do, you do also.

Redefine integrity:  Integrity isn’t feeling the same way always, it’s knowing how you feel even when you feel ambivalent. That’s the kind of integrity that makes people trust you most.