Therapy has helped me realize that I have a strong tendency to “polarize” situations. This means (as best as I understand it, and I am definitely not a therapist, so bear with me….) that I tend to categorize situations and feelings with discrete, black and white, no-gray-area labels. For instance, if I have an argument with a friend, I imagine the whole friendship is in danger of dying a fast and violent death; if a boyfriend and I stop seeing each other, I am certain that I will never hear from him or see him again; if I screw up at work, I worry that I am not adequate to the job. It’s like living your life in an all or nothing emotional state — things are either good or bad; they never just are. This tendency of mine is not based on my lifetime experience; in fact, I have been blessed with much constancy, and my experiences have actually been to the contrary of my polarized expectations more times than not. And yet, I polarize.
Polarizing is a bad thing because it obscures the truth. It, like most labeling exercises, is a convenient means to observe only the superficial possibilities of the situation. By polarizing a situation, I can avoid delving too deeply into truths that might be more painful or difficult to understand than even the negative polarized label I have applied to it.
The perfect illustration of this is a relationship that I had that was complicated from the beginning and ended badly and very painfully. I was so very certain this was the soul connection I’d been waiting for my whole life, and he seemed to feel the same way. But it turned out that he was a charlatan, a chameleon, a man who alters himself to become the dream of the woman he is with. And that’s only when he’s motivated to maintain a relationship; on his lesser days, he is simply a love ’em and leave ’em user. After he broke my heart, it was much easier to see him as only a heartless womanizer who never really appreciated me or loved me; the truth was far more complicated and painful to sift through. Vilifying him felt better – simpler, cleaner, neater – than acknowledging that he is a very flawed man who most likely loved me to the extent to which he is capable, which fell tragically short of what I need and deserve. Polarizing the relationship as a big, painful, embarrassing mistake was a disingenuous way for me distance myself from the agonizing truth that he had loved me, but not enough to be inspired to change his nature and predatory ways. Somehow, the extreme – that he was just a horrible person who never loved me at all – was easier to process than the middle that was full of gray shadings and contained the closest approximation to the truth.
Polarizing can also be paralyzing. During my recent gloomy, frustrated period, I felt certain that I could see my romantic future very, very clearly and it was bleak indeed. As I surveyed my life, I saw no potential mates – no one, nada, zip – on the horizon. My friends told me to be patient, but I was adamant. My job does not afford me many appropriate opportunities to meet men; I have very few single friends in my town; and I had finally canceled my match.com membership, which had been nearly my only means of meeting the many men I’d dated since my divorce. No, I announced firmly, I will be alone for the rest of my life. And the worst part of that difficult time was that I felt temporarily paralyzed in my situation. My polarized assessment of my life’s dismal romantic possibilities made me unable to imagine, let alone pursue, a different course. I was trapped by my own deluded, grim prediction. Now, of course, you can guess what came of all my predictions – the universe took the opportunity to prove me dead wrong, and she didn’t waste any time, either. A man from a past relationship that had ended amidst mutual misunderstanding reappeared….
Polarizing is a kind of lying to ourselves, creating “truths” that are unencumbered by those pesky little qualifiers – the “buts” and “excepts” and “maybes” that muddy our clean categories of victim and offender, good person and bad, possible and impossible. It is a way to allow our fear to limit our views of a situation, to make it simpler, but less authentic.
As with many issues, identifying that I had been polarizing my thoughts and feelings and assessments has made it easier for me to begin making corrections to that way of thinking. Now, when I do it, I often see it for what it is and can re-assess the situation to discern a clearer truth. Not always, of course, but I’m working on it… seeking the middle-ground… trying to stay away from the poles….