Getting Past the Right or Wrong Impasse

In the previous post we looked at how dominant the motif of seeking to be right is in our culture. It is one of the most singular influences on our behavior and our relations. Now we’ll turn our attention to understanding just how this prevailing compulsion to be correct came into being.

The way that we see reality is very influenced by what is known as Aristotelian thinking. Aristotle’s philosophy held that things were or were not, is or is not. This duality very much filters how we picture reality operating. This is known as either/or thinking. It structures our beliefs into a very simple posture. We therefore know of something only by including its opposite.

The word “hate” wouldn’t have much meaning without the notion of “love.” “Good” wouldn’t make sense without including “bad.” The pairing of opposites helps us to differentiate things and these notions shape the mindscape of our reality. But this also entrains our thinking to look at the opposition and forget that there is an included middle – a place where the opposites coexist – which we’ll get to in just a moment.

This dichotomy of either/or thinking would naturally lead us down the path to either being right or being wrong. Our identity becomes very wed with what we believe to be the truth. Our thoughts work overtime to protect this self-constructed image of our identity. Most people protect their egos by defending the need to be right. In so doing, thought mightily defends its territory. Rigid thought accompanies a fragile sense of self. The more tied we are to being right, the more rigid our beliefs and thoughts. So we begin to see thought defending its territory and doing battle with the possibility of being wrong.

Vulnerability or Strength?

The paradox here is that vulnerability of thought – being comfortable with being wrong – is actually powerful and strong. Once we free ourselves from the need to be right, our thinking and our discourse open up. Not being tied to defending the need to be right opens up wonder, inquiry and a quest for learning. It also provides an exceptional nutrient for our relationships. What I am describing is not vulnerability as we ordinarily think of it, which is feeling at risk or insecure. It’s just the opposite. Not having to be right permits a healthy vulnerability. If I don’t need to be right and am not embarrassed to be wrong, I am in fact far more powerful. I have nothing to fear by what others think and my sense of self isn’t tied to such a silly artifact. In other words, I am liberated by not having to be right. This actually fosters a more powerful self-esteem.

Emerging Sciences

Over the last century the emerging sciences – quantum physics, complexity theory, chaos theory – have revealed a new vista of reality, one in which things are and are not at the same time. As counterintuitive as this may sound, it has been empirically proven time and again. Light exists both as a particle and as a wave simultaneously. The either/or falls apart. Our rational desire to break things down into neat and distinct categories that fit into is or is not falls apart and becomes invalid. The simplicity with which our minds have perceived and participated with reality no longer appears valid. And this simplicity may in fact contribute to many of the difficulties we face in overcoming life’s challenges.

At times, things aren’t so simple. At twilight is it day or night? The confusing answer might be yes. Do you love me or hate me? Might depend upon the moment. The either/or dichotomy falls away. Sometimes things become more complex than the simplicity of either/or thinking. When I teach my Emergent Thinking course, invariably someone asks the question, “Mel, do we discover reality or create reality?” My quizzical response is simply yes. I have retrained my mind not to fall into either/or thinking. I believe that we both discover and create at the same time. One doesn’t preclude the other. Discovery suggests that it lies out there. Create implies that the source is from within. The very demarcation between in here and out there is simply a way in which we’ve been trained to see reality. The new sciences suggest that this duality is simply our way of picturing reality – not how things actually operate. When we transcend the limitations of either/or patterns we begin to see in wholeness.

“Either” and “Or”

Shifting from either/or to either and or enables us to engage complexity and resist the temptation to oversimplify. We can see how stuck things become when rooted in the duality of either/or thinking. For example, do you believe in creative intelligence or do you believe in evolution? This sets up a simple one-sided answer. Is it not possible to believe in both? Does one preclude the other? Not necessarily. Can I be pro choice, yet highly sensitive to the ethical issues of abortion? I’d think so.

In more personal matters, the manner in which we get stuck in the argument reveals a monumental roadblock in generative dialogue and a destructive force in healthy communication and relationships. Refer to my post – The 5% Rule – for more detail on this tendency. Breaking free from either/or and embracing the complexity of and/or tends to validate each party rather than having each reject the other.

Complexity, which includes both opposing parts, permits all opinions and positions to be heard and considered. It does not suggest however, that we’ll remain mired in indecisiveness or clarity. There is a deeper and more authentic simplicity that emerges from complexity. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “I don’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I’d give everything for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” He is suggesting that we resist the black or white thinking that entrenches our positions and embrace the shades of gray, which will ultimately inform our deeper and more informed beliefs. When we do so, we break free from the strait jacket of the right or wrong dilemma.

I’ll be offering a workshop on these topics next month. So, please join the mailing list to be advised of the details.

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25 replies
  1. Glenn Gorelick says:

    Hi Mel,

    I like your discovering mind and the inspiring ideas and thoughts that come from it……..

    Some thoughts: You might want to google….. Trialectics. Perhaps you might find some information that might inspire more creative insights into that experiential place or mode of functioning that exists between dualities or in other words transcends dualities. Trialectics is the moment to moment flowing experience of “process”.

    I look forward to more of your work.

  2. Thomas Cole says:

    My initial reaction is one of concern that if my thinking/reactions are not constrained by some framework I live in chaos. Is that an inherent resistance to letting go of right/wrong thinking?

    To me Aristotle’s approach is valid in the life of dimensional human beings. We seem to need boundaries, spectrums, reference scales, things by which to measure stuff. The problem seems to lie with what you’re calling duality – a strict use of either/or, right/wrong, on/off.

    When I was young I had all the answers. There was little mystery in life. Older adults were dumb. My scale of reference was tight – things were right or wrong, on or off, good or bad. Perfect duality, right? And life was simple. Sarah Palin would be jealous of my little teenage world.

    Now old I have a much expanded frame of reference, a spectrum of experience by which to compare things. This is helpful because in my life I need some boundary, limits if you will. I can’t function in society thinking all things are like light – both particle and wave. I have to be able to relate and function within some moral framework where things fall somewhere along the line of right or wrong, good or bad, up or down.

    Though based in duality of thought, my spectrum of experience has greatly expanded over the years. This allows me to avoid the rigidity of my youthful thinking. In other words the ends of my spectrum or reference scale are way out, much wider than they were when I had all the answers!

    As the colors of a rainbow tend to gradually change in the transition from one to another, so is my thinking now. I slide along this scale from one position to another allowing me to consider other possibilities without having to worry much about where I am on the scale. My moral compass seems to work and it keeps me from flying all over the place! Therefore, most of my actions tend to center in the middle while it allows my thought to wander all over the scale.

    There is something very limiting about my brain that seems to require that I know whether light is a wave or a particle, whether something is inherently good or bad, loving or hateful. But I can safely say that with age and experience that dualistic scale is now much wider than it used to be. That makes it very difficult to pinpoint where on the scale fall such things as opinions, studies, observations.

    By the way, a boss I once had used to invite me in to help him think through things. He called it brainstorming: there were no good or bad ideas, no right or wrong – anything was fair game within that session. The rule was no ownership, just free form thinking. It was the best time I ever had in my corporate career. But I will say that rarely did we ever come to any useful conclusions. :-)

  3. Mel Schwartz says:

    Thanks for the recommendation Glenn. I believe that trialectics is similar to systems thinking or what Bateson referred to as an ecology of mind. That approach to thinking –which has been pivotal for me — has taken an interesting turn in the field of transdiscipinarity, which grew out of complexity theory.

    It does seem to keep spiraling up! Enjoy the ride

  4. Mel Schwartz says:

    Hi Thomas,
    First of all thank you so much for sharing such personal and well thought out considerations. I very much appreciate such effort.

    As for chaos, it’s such a value laden word. It evokes stress and anxiety. If we can let go and reframe it, it’s simply uncertainty, which provides a temporary resting place until we reach our next and higher level of understanding. You might want to read my earlier post –The Gift of Confusion –that speaks to this.

    I’m not really proposing lack of boundaries or ethical reference points. We know full well what are instincts are telling us. The goal is to not simply react to those inveterate trigger points and try instead to embrace the contemplation. Through this process your beliefs may prevail, but they will be more complex and authentic for having opened them up to greater scrutiny..

  5. Katherine Allen says:

    While I completely agree with challenging and interrupting the either/or or black/white thinking, in my practice we embrace what we call the both/and philosophy instead. I find that using completely different and all inclusive words better formulates the new thinking process. It gives clients the room to have multiple plausible goods not just one and validates all of the many shades we may see in any given situation. I have a post on exactly this philosophy scheduled to run next week!

    and @Thomas re: brainstorming, the purpose of brainstorming is to get all of the obvious and limiting ideas out of the way to free up the room to think more creatively and to come up with more solutions, not just one.

  6. Henk Spierings says:

    An excellent article. One that prompts me to think about our choices in being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Also prompts the concept that a person can be both, or neither depending on the moment. It again prompts me to think about my endless inner debate about how much choice human beings have as to how they are in the world.

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Henk,
      I believe that the choices we have as to who we are in the world exist moment to moment, thought by thought. In the moment before I attach to my next thought, all that exists is pure potential. The challenge is, can I get out of my own way, so I may see clearly and act accordingly?

  7. Karin says:

    Hi Mel

    What you say about being comfortable with being wrong, feeling relieved of the pressure of having to be right, and the relationship to self-esteem – all of that resonates with me and captures well some experiences I have had recently. So thanks. I also like the idea of moving from either/or to either/and – though I think that needs to be understood as otherwise such a response could seem either annoyingly enigmatic or sphinx-like, if the people one is speaking to don’t understand the underlying thought process. I also love the prospect of ‘getting out of my own way- always a challenge but never an impossibility.
    I’m pleased to have discovered your blog and hope you might have a look at mine.

    All the best,

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Karin,
      I believe the best we can do is to communicate to the other that there are indeed shades of gray in our own perception, which may enable them to do the same.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
      And I’m off to look at your blog.

  8. Randi Zimmerman, LCSW says:

    Dear Mel,

    It may be frightening for some to practically apply that there is no clear right or wrong. I agree. But how can we get there if we are not willing to be wrong? I have no interest in debating an issue with those who hold my same viewpoint. What can I possibly learn? The true education lies with those who see things differently. Only then will I be able to see the whole picture. Only then can I have all that I need to decide what is right and what is wrong.

    Every day, as a therapist I am challenged to hold back on what I believe to be right or wrong. Perhaps it is an affair or drug use or a harsh word to a loved one. Every time I make the mistake of passing judgement and guiding according to my compass, I am wrong! Even if I am right!

    With my children, I must be clear about what I believe is right but I must be open to discussion so that I know what is on the minds, in the hearts and in the cars of my teenage children! Make no mistake, I decide what is right and what is wrong in this venue and I hope to hell I’m right!

    In my marriage, it has taken me a long time to realize that if I am always right and he is always wrong, then I am the winner and he is the loser! Who wants to be married to a loser? So sometimes I let him win even if he’s wrong! Is that so wrong??!!

    Randi Zimmerman, LCSW

    • Nancy says:

      I love your comments Randi, especially paragraph 2 and 4. So clear. Can be such hard things to learn.

      I also wonder how often in a marriage we are wondering who is right and who is wrong, when the issue or the motive behind the discussion is actually something else other than the ideas or facts that the words seem to be about. Many years later, I find myself realizing that desires, beliefs and disagreements that I stated to my partner were not actually caused by what I thought was causing them and had no relationship to what I said in my words. So that my desire to move to a new neighbourhood was actually motivated more by my unhappiness with our inability to speak openly and lovingly to each other than by the problems in our current neighbourhood (even though those problems were true and obvious.) So, when we moved, I remained discontent and my partner felt justifiably disappointed.

      How to get behind or above the obvious factual concerns to the inner heart concerns — not easy for people with dysfunctional backgrounds.

      Of course the family dysfunctions are also supported by the way our society operates…….

  9. Mel Schwartz says:

    Hi Randi,
    Your point is well made..If there’s a winner that necessitates a loser. So where does that leave our relationship? Would you rather win or would you rather commune?

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Lita,
      My thinking has been influenced far from the ordinary terrain of psychology. I read quantum physics (David Bohm in particular) chaos theory, complexity theory and an emerging philosophy called transdisciplinarity, which grew out of complexity theory. If you’d like a particular list of books, please let me know.

  10. Sally-Anne Airey says:

    Fascinating post Mel; very thought-provoking and, for me, reassuring. In my 20s I tended to see grey in every discussion but felt that I ought perhaps to be taking some kind of stand. It’s taken me years to realise that I can live very happily and generatively with my grey.
    I’d love some book recommendations around transdisciplinarity.

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Sally-Anne,
      Of course, I should note that people often get paralyzed with indecision in the gray area. So what we seek is a deeper intuitive know that comes from engaging complexity, without falling prey to over analyzing. Complexity is about widening your gaze, rather than hyper-focusing. I’d recommend Basarb Nicolescu ..Manifesto of transdisciplinarity and his other book Theory and Practice.

  11. LorenM. Gelberg-Goff says:

    Great topic… I believe that what prevents chaos when we move away from either/or thinking is one’s ability to sit with the feelings that arise when faced with an either/or scenario… Rather than judging the rightness or wrongness of a situation, we get to sit with our feelings and acknowledge where our beliefs came from and whether or not the beliefs enhance or diminish us. Yes, it’s another framework with parameters, but there are no judgments, just awareness of what we’re experiencing which then enables us to determine our next course of action. We don’t have to judge anyone else for thinking differently, we simply acknowledge that our thinking and therefore our responses are moving in a different direction…

  12. Nancy Gershman says:

    Mel, first of all, thank you for your eloquence on the subject. Secondly, I couldn’t help chuckling that the discussion reminded me of that pencil eraser popular a couple of years ago – the one that said “Smart Women Make Changes.” Removing the war-of-the-sexes issue for a second, I believe that fluidity in our judgement can be a good thing, even – as you say – from second to second. It’s not a sign of weakness but of being open to new interpretations. Which brings me to that earlier comment by Katherine about brainstorming. Wouldn’t it, indeed, be a great thing if we encouraged more brainstorming by our clients to get out those “delimiting” and judgemental black/white thoughts. The great thing about blurting out ideas in brainstorming is that everyone expects the cliches (and snap judgements) always to come out first. Only after several refining sessions do you get to The Good Stuff.

    • Mel Schwartz says:

      Yes, brainstorming is generative, but only after we let go of the filter of fear which limits the activity of the brain. Letting go of what the other person will think, are we being silly, stupid, etc. can open the real brainstorming.

  13. donna trainor says:

    my comment is to address the other side of how freeing,positive and appropriate either/and thinking can be. people look to black and white thinking to silence their anxiety,their fear of what life lies before them. if i can make a decision one way or another about something then it can be resolved,for better or worse,rather than my having to remain in the uncertainity. people tend to reach for black and white thinking because of how painful the gray of reality can be. ” she tries to care for me as best she can but her best is not good enough. they are nice but money is their first proirity. he loves me but i am still alone. i love you but not your behavior. you didn’t mean to hurt me but you did. etc.,etc. if one is often caught in either/and feelings and thinking in relationships and nothing about it feels positive. it is true that freeing ourselves from restrictions and boundaries that do not allow us to see the full reality and potential of life will provide us with tremendous benefit,in the moment it gets lost in the struggle to exist. too many struggle just to exist. too few ever live.

  14. Charles Lebeda says:

    Concerning categorizing things, eg is it this or that, you might want to look at Bart Kosko’s book “Fuzzy Thinking” or posts. He, among others, gives a systematic way of looking at the problem.


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