Life seems replete with examples of duality- night/day, life/death, hunger/satiety, husband/wife.

Our perceptions also seem to mirror that – right/wrong, smart/stupid, success/failure, love/hate, courage/coward, leave/stay.

It can be easy to get trapped by some of these dualities. 

For example, it can sometimes be conceptually easier to cling to one side of a duality (i.e. think of myself as a failure), but it comes at a psychological cost. Much of the distorted thinking associated with anxiety or depression (as examples) involves clinging to one side of a duality – i’m stupid, i’m unsafe, the world is bad, people are bad.

Or sometimes we get trapped thinking that the two options of a duality (a and b) are the only choices. We fail to see grey choices (something between a and b) or even expanded option sets (c and d). 

For any degree of medium to long-term psychological benefit, it seems that we have to develop the capacity to find resolutions to unhelpful dualities. 

That resolution can take a number of forms:

  • Compromise – the final solution will involve a little bit of a) and a little bit of b)
  • More options – realising it is not a duality at all, but that there are options c) and d)…. 
  • Balance – ideal solution is a mix of a) and b)
  • Intersection – there is a point between a) and b) where outcomes are maximised
  • Honouring both – both a) and b) are correct, depending on how you look at it 
  • Nuance – a) and b) can only really be understood with lots of other information included
  • Detail – the descriptions of a) and b) need expanding
  • Accept and switch – need to switch from a) to b) 
  • Dissolve – realise the duality doesn’t really exist
  • Application – understand better when to apply a) and b)

I’m sure there are others as well.

To resolve dualities is effortful. Our brains like dualities because it means we can use simple heuristics to navigate the world (that person is bad, I am not good at this) and not tax our cognitive systems too much. 

But such heuristics can leave us stuck in old patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. For example, someone stuck in a relationship who represents their options as only ‘stay’ or ‘go’ and is paralysed by this choice. Great suffering can be caused by being trapped by some aspect of duality.  

What does this mean at a practical level?

A real-world example I see a lot is forgetting that ‘hard work’ exists in a duality with ‘deep rest’. Many of us are good at working ourselves into the ground (cling to the ‘hard work’ part), but less so at embedding the necessary deep rest required to consolidate and repair.

Another is getting mixed up between ‘approach’ and ‘avoid’ and not implementing the right one at the right time. Avoiding situations that would actually help us grow and approaching those situations that keep us stuck. 

I also see examples of getting the balance wrong between “investing in self” versus “investing in others” when it comes to expending emotional energy.  

You’ll note in these examples that there isn’t really a ‘right’ choice. Rather it is the task of the individual to try and resolve the duality in a way that works for them. 

Without deliberate effort to resolve duality conflicts, we risk falling prey to conceptualising ourselves and others and the world in limited ways, ones that causes more suffering

What is it you are wrestling with?

In this struggle, are you clinging too tightly to one side of a duality? Are you operating from one side and ignoring the other? Do you need to switch from one side to the other? Are you representing your options as either a) or b) and not realising the actual solution is a compromise or something totally different?

If it isn’t obvious, don’t be concerned. Sit the idea for a while, see if the relevant duality presents itself at some point and see if you can find the energy to explore it further. 

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