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I recently posted a picture of myself on Instagram with the following caption:
Three truths: 1️) Today I got to go on a lovely walk and talk in the woods with a friend. 2️) I am loving my new short haircut and feel cute and fun in my body. 3️) I am navigating a new meds side effect of dizziness.
If I choose to focus only on the third one and miss the first two, I see my life as one led by suffering. But the magic of healing and growing and loving is such that when I experience all three together, I feel incredibly grateful for and humbled by this experience of learning and living.
This post received a lot of engagement, and while it might have been for my new haircut, I think it was more for the message: it is possible to experience two conflicting truths at the same time. One does not need to cancel out the other, and you do not have to choose.
Reflecting on this action—holding two conflicting truths at once—makes me think of social media and blog posts I’ve seen by people who live with chronic pain and/or illness: some days are better than others; sometimes we need accomodations, but sometimes we don’t. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, check out my recent blog post on the Spoon Theory). My chronic pain and illness are generally invisible unless I share them with you, but that doesn’t erase them. Therefore, it’s true that I can both look “healthy” and be sick or feel pain. I can both experience side effects from my medications, and still enjoy myself on a walk with a friend. My miraculous body can physically hold space for both truths at once.
Another example of holding two conflicting truths is how I feel about moving across the state to live with my Sweetie after two and a half years of long distance dating: bittersweet. I am both extremely excited to live with her after years of weekend commutes and owning a toothbrush on either side of the state, but I will also truly feel sad to leave the town I’ve called home for almost ten years, and the apartment I’ve lived in for five. I’ll miss my routine and seeing my friends and healers regularly, and I also know I will build a new, meaningful routine. I am allowed to feel sad and happy at once, and one truth does not outweigh or cancel out the other. There are an infinite number of ways that you can hold two conflicting truths at the same time.
When Holding Two Conflicting Truths Feels Uncomfortable
Sometimes holding two conflicting truths feels uncomfortable. This might be because you are practicing personal growth and are outside of your comfort zone, trying something new, or approaching something via a new perspective. This kind of discomfort might feel threatening at first, but with the right tools (e.g., the guidance of a therapist or coach, meditation, self-compassion, using a mantra, taking deep breaths, etc.), it may be simply a stop along your larger path in life.
However, the discomfort we might experience when holding two conflicting truths at once can also serve to alert us to a larger issue. For example, you might feel beholden to and wish the best for a loved one, but you may also need to set boundaries with them around the labor you are able to offer them. You might be truly excited about a large purchase you want to make, but you might also feel afraid to drain your savings, and so you might choose to wait a beat before you reallocate your funds. In examples like this, you may honor all feelings, yet you will likely make a choice to do one thing and to not do another.
I don’t have a specific how-to to offer you for deciding how to make difficult decisions around setting boundaries, holding yourself and others accountable, or processing grief (I’m not a trained therapist, and I can only speak from my lived experience). But, I can tell you that the labor of making difficult decisions is real, and that your emotions are valid, even if they seem to undermine one another in your heart and mind.
I have worked hard over the last few years to shift away from black and white thinking, and intentionally giving myself permission to hold two conflicting truths at once has given me a practical way to remain calm and present in the gray space. You can read more about challenging black and white thinking in my blog post 1.25: Embracing the Gray Area, which includes how-tos for dealing with logical frameworks like cognitive distortion and logical fallacies.
I can usually tell when I’m not honoring my full emotional experience because I feel a pang of grief in my chest when I tell myself things like “it’s fine,” “don’t be needy,” or “you need to do more.” When this happens, I check in with myself and acknowledge how I feel, and I often recognize that I am positioning two conflicting truths as adversaries. Instead, I practice saying things like “I was really excited to do X, but I accept that it is not possible right now. Even though I accept that not doing X is the best decision, I still feel disappointed.” I put it well in the following Instagram post:
The photo was attached to this text:
This photo was taken when I was in a herx reaction, which is the body’s response to not being able to clear out dead toxins quickly enough during treatment. I felt dizzy, lethargic, and disappointed that I missed the big antique market that I’d been looking forward to attending.
But also, I was about to go to dinner, where I’d get to see my Sweetie’s sister and her husband, whom I adore. I was loving my outfit. My Sweetie was making me laugh.
I’d love to leave you with the following guidance, tenderhearts. The next time you catch yourself beating yourself up or reverting to negative self talk, check in with your emotions. Are you holding two conflicting truths at once with kindness for yourself, or are you creating a threatening storm within your mind and heart? Are you feeling angry at yourself, or are you truly feeling sad or disappointed for not achieving a goal or intention? Can you resee the act of holding two conflicting truths at once as practicing compassion for the complicated experience of being human?