14 March 2023

Our capacity for ‘Opposable Thinking’

We all know the feeling of being torn between two different options – ‘Shall I work more hours to climb the social ladder or do I want to work less to spend more time with my friends and family?’, ‘Shall I go out tonight, because I haven’t seen my friends in a while, or stay in and relax, because I am tired?’. What makes these situations difficult, is having to make a choice between two (apparently) mutually exclusive, interdependent options. We find ourselves in a dilemma. We can easily recognise that we are in a dilemma when we feel pulled in one direction or the other. This often creates an uncomfortable feeling of inner tension and we can literally feel torn.

For example, I have an all-time dilemma of whether I should make plans for every evening of the upcoming week, so that I don’t end up spending an evening by myself when I would actually like company, or whether I should take the days as they come and see what I feel like doing, taking the risk that this won’t be possible on such short notice. The tricky part is that choosing one option excludes the other, as the options are interdependent – either I structure my week or I don’t. To break it down even more, dilemmas often sit on top of polarities – the options depict two ends of a spectrum. In the previous example the dilemma sits on top of the ‘structure – flexibility’ polarity. The underlying polarity is what makes the choice difficult, so let’s take a closer look at these.


Polarities are inherent in our thinking as most of our language is built upon polar pairs:

  • up – down
  • in – out
  • good – bad
  • weak – powerful
  • connected – detached

Our language entices us to think in an either/or mode. This black-or-white thinking is quite a common habit – ‘if it isn’t good, then it’s bad’, ‘I either feel connected or detached’. We tend to choose one end of a polar spectrum and lose sight of nuance.

Dealing with opposing ideas, needs and values is an integral part of life, concerning big and small questions of our day-to-day experience. There are many polar pairs that are quite universal:

  • work – rest
  • structure – flexibility
  • freedom – duty
  • save – spend
  • self – other
  • future – present
  • appreciate what is – desire more

While reading the examples above, you might have noticed that one or two of the polarities feel particularly important to you. Most of us have some sort of relation with all of these polarities, but often a couple of them feel particularly meaningful to us. Sometimes these are related to our life situation and sometimes they might be related to our character or our upbringing. Our relationship with a polarity might be that we feel pulled quite strongly to one end of the polarity (eg preferring structure over flexibility) or we might value both of these polar pairs, but we are struggling to integrate them in a way that feels right for us. Polarities that are especially meaningful to us are something that we get caught in frequently and repetitively, leaving us with inner tension or a struggle to find the right choice. The meaning-making capacity of ‘Opposable Thinking’ refers to our ability to work with these conflicting or polarised ideas.

The development of polarities

While we often stick with a set of immutable truths at the start of our development – for example we might value freedom much higher than intimacy – over time we become more accomplished at ‘playing’ with our ideas – we might realise that intimacy is quite nice as well. Opposable Thinking refers to the development of fluid thinking – we can dance seemingly between opposable ideas by integrating freedom and intimacy in our lives and our identity.

Being caught in a polarity

When we are not particularly attached to a polarity, we know that it is there, but we can move smoothly between the different poles, finding the right balance for us concerning ‘work’ and ‘rest’, for example. We make choices that feel appropriate to us in the moment without feeling caught or tense. However, when we are caught in a polarity, we might be very attached or stuck to one end of the polarity. For example, we might feel very attached to the task-driven, achievement-oriented, work-related pole of the work-rest polarity, leading us to forget or devalue resting – we might know we should, but we can’t get there. There is nothing wrong with being attached to one end of a polarity, but it can feel uncomfortable for us.

Often we intellectually know that each pole has benefits and there is also the possibility of overuse. At shiftspace, we explicitly don’t call them disadvantages – they are not ‘bad things’ about the pole, they are simply the result of too much of that pole. For example, I might see the really strong benefit of working hard to achieve my goals and I might recognize the possible overuse of never getting any time off. However, in my own life I still stay stuck in ‘working without adequate rest’.

So how does this connect with the dynamic of ‘being torn’ that I described above? The deeper we are on the side of overuse, the better the benefits of the opposite pole look. This can cause us to get into a loop, swinging backwards and forwards between the poles, trying to find a ‘compromise’.

To make matters a bit more complicated, often we are not only attached to one end of a polarity but to one end of a diagonal. When we imagine the two poles ‘work’ and ‘rest’, as well as their benefits and overuses as illustrated below, we can imagine two diagonals, each one of them connecting the benefits of our preferred pole with the overuses of the opposing pole.

So what happens is that we don’t simply get attached to one end of a polarity, but we are attached to the benefits of that pole. And we value these benefits so highly, because on the other end, we can only recognise the overuses of the other pole. Overuses are always negative in a way, which makes that whole pole seem unattractive, causing us to stick to our preferred pole.

Let’s make this more concrete, if we are attached to the work end of the work-rest polarity, we would work hard, because we really see the benefits of ‘work’ – success, financial security, a good reputation – and we would rarely rest, as we only see the unattractive overuses of ‘rest’ – debt, sluggishness, losing my job.

The funny thing is, that someone else might be attached to the other diagonal of that same polarity, primarily resting, as they see the benefits of ‘rest’ – freedom, relaxation, happiness – while devaluing ‘work’, as they only see its overuse – disconnect, stress, burn-out. So what we see is that each polarity has two possible perspectives – both are accurate, but neither is complete – these are the benefit-overuse diagonals.

The more we prefer a diagonal, the more we

  • tolerate its overuses
  • define those who like the opposite pole by its overuses: they are wrong, I am right
  • use it to define some part of our identity.

We get caught in the idea that our diagonal is the reality – ‘If I rest, I will get lazy’. We don’t see the possible benefits of the other pole, we only see the downsides of overusing it. And most importantly, we might not realise that, while focusing on the benefits of our preferred pole, we can easily slip into its overuse.

Working on our capacity for Opposable Thinking can help us get out of these traps. Resolving, loosening or making progress in a polarity is not about finding the middle ground or ‘happy medium’, but about moving fluidly between the different poles. We aim to move from an either/or-thinking to an integrated thinking – not choosing work or rest, structure or flexibility, but integrating the contrasting needs, values or demands in a way that feels right for us personally. It is absolutely fine to still lean toward one end of the polarity as long as we feel comfortable with it and can move fluidly to the other end of the pole when it feels appropriate to us.

Moving into ‘flow’ and finding a ‘Third Way’

While we might be able to see the benefits of our unpreferred pole from an intellectual point of view, we might feel unable to shift our mindset. What keeps us stuck at this point is the fear of possible overuses of the other pole and our desire not to lose what we value. When we are stuck in a polarity and want to make progress with it, the goal is to move from an ‘either/or’ to a ‘both-and’ state. The question to ask ourselves is ‘What can I do to get more out of ‘rest’ without losing the benefits of ‘work’?’. To achieve this ‘both-and’ state we often need to find what Brian Emerson calls a ‘Third Way’.

A Third Way

  • is a reintegration of the opposing pole (not a compromise)
  • is a mindset or way of being (rather than just doing something differently)
  • is focussed on expanding (not losing)
  • often needs new words or a metaphor.

Finding a Third Way can be difficult, because our minds are so used to our old ways of thinking about the polarity. To free ourselves and shift to a new mindset, we need to get a bit creative. We can try to imagine what it would be like to combine the benefits of both poles. Often we also need to get a bit playful with the wording of our Third Way.

Let’s take an example that often comes up in our lives when the demands of family, work and friendships all pull on our time and attention – the polarity ‘self – other’. Third Ways for working with this polarity might sound like this:

  • ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’
  • Take care of others only when they can’t take care of themselves, otherwise leave them free to act
  • ‘interselfish’ (yes, you read this correctly, I will explain this below).

We previously talked about how polar pairs are inherent in our language and can therefore constrain our thinking – ‘when things get tough, we need to choose to take care of ourselves or take care of others’. These options seem mutually exclusive, but they don’t need to be. That is why, when finding our Third Way, we often need to invent new words or phrases to describe our desired state – such as ‘inter-selfishness’ (a combination of interaction and selfish). And what does that mean exactly? Well, that is something completely individual – for me, it means recognising that if I take my own needs seriously (I am ‘selfish’) then, I will be more able to co-operate and take care of others when one person really needs it.

Importantly, by finding a Third Way we aim to expand who we are, not lose or give up who we are. When we examine our polarities, we often find that our personal core polarities are linked to our identity, they make up who we are. You might, for example, strongly identify with your work or, on the other hand, identify as a free spirit who is not constrained by work-duties. Shifting a polarity can feel like shifting our identity which, understandably, can feel like a huge threat. Often we believe that we have to be either this or that. Humans have a natural desire to be congruent in their behaviour, in who they display to be and who they are. You can observe this in teenagers quite strongly – this is a natural part of our development, of finding out who we are. Our later developmental challenges concern letting go of some rigidity and building up complexity. Essentially, we want to keep our identity, while integrating other parts into it, expanding who we are.