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You Don't Get to Be Simple

People don’t want life to be complicated, but it is. People don’t want to be complicated, but they are. When we seek to treat ourselves, others, or situations as simple, we will leave out complicated but essential elements, and this leads to detours, setbacks, and full stops. A quotation attributed to Niels Bohr expresses my main principle: “The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” I take this to mean that a simple and true statement never captures the entire truth.

[A brief word on influences-- therapists will likely see this post as a rehashing of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model, but my awareness and honoring of multiplicity has a long history. I was first introduced to the concept in Luke Rhinehart’s fascinating (but deeply immoral) novel The Dice Man. Later in life, I was exposed to Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, in which Folly Herself points out both genuine and hypocritical contradictions in human life.]

In almost every session, with almost every client, this is my main message: that you don’t get to be simple, and you’ll make more progress once you start integrating rather than rejecting complications. I often introduce the clients to multiplicity through “Horizontal Matt” (who loves staying in bed) and “Vertical Matt” (who loves to go to work). I am both of these people, and I can only live my best life when I’m true to both of them, even though they fight.

Another significant example of multiplicity is the “ball of emotions”-- situations in which allowing for mixed feelings is more authentic than insisting on feeling just one thing.

I think the root of this issue is our strong desire to disavow anything within us that we see as “negative.” We describe our “horizontal selves” as lazy. We understand our ball of emotions as confusion, weakness, or even sinful. This rejection of the negative leads us to engage in antagonistic self-talk, when what we actually need is compassion for and collaboration with our complexity. A silly (but true) example I often use to capture this kind of teamwork: cursing while getting out of bed, as in “%&$*@%, fine, I’m getting up!” I get up in the spirit of the vertical self, but also curse about it in the spirit of horizontal self.

Embracing the complicated is equally important in interpersonal relationships, specifically when there’s conflict. If everyone is complicated, then simplistic interpretations of others’ intentions are inaccurate, and often inspire unfortunately pure and extreme emotions. “You’re just being a jerk” is a missed opportunity for curiosity about the complicated dynamics behind jerky behavior-- a curiosity which can explain without necessarily justifying these jerks.

In the argument itself we also need to honor the complicated. If we express a single (thus incomplete truth), we’re provoking the other to insist on its opposite. Pitting one’s “Don’t yell at me!” against the other’s “You’re really frustrating right now” is a surefire way to go in circles. “I know you’re frustrated right now but I don’t want to be yelled at,” and “I know you don’t want to be yelled at, but I’m also really frustrated right now,” are more complicated statements which can prevent escalation. By embracing the complicated truth, we might end up on the same team instead of being enemies.

Now then, I’ll back off from the absoluteness of this post-- since saying “Everything is complicated” is itself a hypocritical denial of its own opposite, which is that some things may indeed be simple. So, I’ll allow the possibility of the simple. At the same time, I believe that our problem-solving processes, whether solo or with others, are better served by a mindset that is open rather than closed to complications.

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