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Holding the opposites’ tension in polarised times

Coping with the strong emotions and opinions of other people can be a challenging and at times tricky task. We are frequently in the presence of others who may have strong opinions on all sorts of political, environmental, ethical, and spiritual matters and this can feel discomforting at least, and at times it can be downright frustrating or enraging. Sometimes the topics of contention may be at a local level – opinions around a child’s teacher or engagement in a sporting club for example, or maybe the issue might be in the realm of local politics or a simple personal matter. But sometimes the issues can be global, intense, thorny, and highly charged. At this very time, the world has a number of armed conflicts, a range of significant political tensions, and a vast array of environmental and human rights challenges. When these topics arise naturally (or are sometimes intentionally introduced) in the course of our daily interactions with others, how might we hold or manage them? At these times, what guidance does IFS have to offer and how does its inherent wisdom integrate with other schools of thought?

At the root of this matter is the way that tension between ourselves and others can ratchet in and spiral upwards to the point of extreme tightness or conflict. Radical views; strident opinions; judgments cast in stone; immovable mountains meeting unstoppable forces. It is as if we are not being heard at all and if we were able to check in with the other, it seems likely that they would say the same thing. Sometimes this feeling can be accompanied by a sense of rising panic, frustration, anger, or helplessness. When faced with these types of situations, and as a community interested in the IFS model, we immediately think of the dynamic of polarisations which can be defined as ‘a state in which two members (or two groups) in the same system take opposing views and conflict or compete. They each grow increasingly extreme out of fear of the other side taking over and can thereby obscure the Self of the system’ (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2020, Glossary).

The IFS model provides us with various elegant strategies for dealing with polarisations but using the simple example of a polarisation between two parts only (rather than a more complicated polarisation with three or more parts), one of the simplest is to try and allow the voice of both parties to be heard and have their respective fears addressed. When the system is supported in this way, the polarised parties who are commonly faithful, conscientious, long-suffering managers engaged in long term, vital, and frequently lifesaving work, will be hit with that most fundamental of IFS insights – we are both working toward the same objective! At this point, some flexibility is infused into the system and work can progress. But – and this is a huge but – allowing the voice of both parties to be heard is easier said than done. Why might this be so?

I’d like to suggest that it can be extremely hard for a number of reasons. First, it’s just easier to see the world in black and white. Introducing the notion of grey as a possibility or taking it even a step further and bringing in the notion of colour, requires additional thought, effort, data input and analysis – and all of this takes time and effort in a world where we are busy and often exhausted. Second, allowing both parties to have a voice can be hard because it creates internal tension. Seeing a person or situation as fully ‘good’ is relatively easy and requires little judgment or consideration. They are just good! Seeing a person as fully ‘evil’ is the same. But engaging in careful consideration and making a judgment based on the full range of data requires balance and thus tension. Think of an old-fashioned set of weighing scales with two bowls suspended at equal distances from a fulcrum. When a heavy weight is on one side and there is nothing on the other, there is no tension; the weighted bowl rests on the ground, motionless, and inert. But when the bowls contain equal or roughly equal weights, the system is in a state of flux. It is quivering and tense and in a state of suspension. Holding this tension in our body, heart, and mind requires effort.

Owning this psychosomatic tension and allowing it to rest in our bodies rather than rejecting it and projecting it outwards, allows for a more balanced outcome. When we have a different opinion to someone else and we express that by saying some version of ‘you are wrong’ or ‘you are evil’, we excise any possibility of having our own state of evil or wrongness and we project it outwards, thus creating the (false) understanding that we carry no wrongness or evil ourselves. Rather, it’s something that exists out there. But in this misunderstanding we can be guided by the Russian author and prominent Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who tells us ‘If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’ (Solzhenitsyn, 1974).

So, we need to consider that we might be carrying some portion of what is going on here and at these times we can be guided by another fundamental IFS principle; the U-turn. Pioneered and neatly outlined by Toni Herbine-Blank (Herbine-Blank & Sweezy, 2021), the first step in the U-turn invites us to notice our reactivity, thoughts, feelings, and sensations and then be curious. If the problematic issue, frequently made manifest by my confrontation with my frustration, rage, or helplessness, is simply attributed to the other person’s ‘wrongness’ or ‘evil’, there is no need to do a U-turn and no need to be curious. But, if we hold the possibility that we might be contributing to the issue in some way, the U-turn becomes an invaluable and robust tool capable of injecting some integrity into the situation and allowing the tension of the opposites to be established and tolerated. It’s an approach most neatly summed up by that mystical quote of Jung’s; ‘If things go wrong in the world…I shall put myself right first.’ (Jung, 1964, Collected Works, 10 par. 329).

Jung has a lot to say on this matter and much of it is about the link between the microcosm and the macrocosm, but with regard to our question around managing conflict with others who have intensely opposing views, it is instructive to notice what he had to say about larger global tensions and conflicts – because the two are connected. With regard to that dark period of World War II, between 1939 and 1945, Jung says, ‘The struggle between light and darkness has broken out everywhere. The rift runs through the whole globe, and has set the fire that is smouldering and glowing… The conflagration that broke in out Germany was the outcome of psychic conditions that are universal (italics mine; Jung, 1964, 10, par. 485).

We can see in Jung’s thinking here that while the epicentre of that particular period of global warfare was sparked in Germany, the dry twigs, kindling, and larger logs which fuelled the fire and made the six years of conflict possible, were grown, harvested, and added to the entire combustible pile from around the whole globe. He notes that this state was co-created in universal psychic conditions and that every time a situation is co-created, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about what we might have contributed. Divesting ourselves of any responsibility and projecting blame outwards eases the tension for sure, but it also lacks nuance and integrity. Moreover, it sets up a dynamic whereby others outside the system who might have more power (think politicians, military dictators, and power-hungry tyrants in general), will step in and agree with us. ‘Yes – you are right. You are not the problem – they are the problem. Join with me and do my bidding and we will defeat them/exclude them/make ourselves more powerful’. Sound familiar?

So, whether the war is global, intra-continental, national, based in our workplace, our neighbourhood, or even our family, there are principles we can keep in mind when faced with seemingly intractable conflict. First, is the dynamic of polarisation. It appears as if there are two opposing forces, but a closer look tells us that the various parties involved may be trying to achieve the same objective – they may be working for the same team, as astonishing as that sometimes might seem. Second, let’s be open to a U-turn; let’s be curious about what we might be bringing to the matter and the space wherein we find ourselves. And finally, let’s keep in mind the usefulness of holding the tension of the opposites. The downside is that it takes time and effort. The potential upside is greater balance, more nuanced considerations, and a completely different and more harmonious world.

 

References

Herbine-Blank, T, & Sweezy, M. (2021). Internal family systems couple therapy skills manual: Healing relationships with intimacy from the inside out. PESI Publishing.

Jung, C. G. (1964), Civilization in transition, collected works, 10. Princeton University Press.

Schwartz, R. C & Sweezy, M. (2020). Internal family systems (2nd ed.). The Guildford Press.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (1974). The gulag archipelago. Éditions du Seuil.

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Author

  • Shaun Dempsey

    Shaun Dempsey, PhD, is Deputy Editor of PARTS & SELF, a Level 3 Certified IFS therapist and Clinical Psychologist in Australia.