Q Recently I have been struck by how many contradictory feelings and thoughts I have each day. For example, one moment I will want to get out and exercise and the next moment I want to sit and read a book. I really love my wife but I find myself feeling bored sometimes or not even liking her much. I seem to enjoy my work, but then I catch myself looking forward to something better. Even when I am eating my favorite meal, I find myself not fully relaxing and enjoying it. I feel distracted, worried, or I criticize the food because isn’t as healthy as I think it ought to be. How do I deal with this?
A We are by nature immersed in the opposites of life—day and night, male and female, gay and straight, inner and outer, sex and spirit, sun and moon, light and dark, joy and sorrow, separateness and connectedness, and love and hate. The dance of life involves these opposite qualities and forces to contradict, complement, and unite.
As children, we have to contend with a big range of feelings immediately, as we are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain for survival. When a child is fed and warm, he feels pleasure. When he is afraid and uncomfortable and the mother isn’t there to soothe him, he feels pain. When mother gives him what he wants or needs, then he sees mother as good and when mother isn’t available or gratifying him, then she is seen as bad.
As we grow up, we experience so much of life through this bipolar lens. Some people are able to accept that life comes in various shades and are not as torn by differing viewpoints or decisions. Others get stuck, feel ambivalent, and are highly challenged in making a choice or committing to one thing. Often, fear of failure and fear of the unknown are underneath this dilemma. Also, modern culture places an undue emphasis on getting it perfect.
Sounds like part of what you’re dealing with is accepting the good that you do have in life. Do things need to be perfect before you can actually appreciate and enjoy them? Do you have idealized and, perhaps, unrealistic expectations from you life and family? Flaws and imperfections are very much a part of the human experience. Accepting the limitations and messiness of life allows us to actually be more real about ourselves and the nature of life. People who are able to hold both realities—the “good” and “bad”—as part of one life, are more content and appreciative of what they have.
The Zen monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh sums it up well: “My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flower bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans. Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.”
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com.