Outside the Box. Finding Your Way Through Contradictions.
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
How are you with contradictions? Do you fight them and argue one side?
As meaning-making beings, we try hard to make sense of what’s going on in and around us. Our inner world consists of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Our external world consists of social interactions, patterns in our environment, etc. We identify, categorize, organize, and filter through information to determine if it fits with our mental schema. Mental schemas are the information we take in to create a picture or an understanding of a situation, social or otherwise. It’s our version of reality and it’s generally predictive – meaning, we are anticipating the outcome or response to something based on our understanding of it.
Ultimately, we’re trying to put things into nice, neat boxes.
A simple example is a child who has a mental understanding, a schema, of a horse. They know it is a large, four-legged animal, with a tail. The first time they encounter a cow, they say,” horse”. There is no other frame of reference for a cow, so it makes sense that this large, four-legged animal with a tail might appear like a horse. This is an example of assimilation: they know large, four-legged animals with tails and generalize to other similar animals. Because we know that cows are not horses, a correction is made to the child, explaining how horses and cows are different. So, they change their understanding, through accommodation, and eventually know that cows and horses are different.
“According to Piaget, the learning process involves attempting to interpret new information within the framework of existing knowledge (assimilation), making small changes to that knowledge in order to cope with things that don't fit those existing frameworks (accommodation), and eventually adjusting existing schemas or forming new ones in order to adjust to a new understanding (equilibration).”4
What has been increasingly interesting during my time as a therapist and coach is seeing how people are desperate to hold on to their understanding of the world and have great difficulty adjusting when new information is presented. Here’s an example: I worked with individuals who believed that their worth was determined by performance. If they received positive feedback and glowing reviews, they thought,” I’m capable, competent, and worthy”. The opposite was also true. If they received negative feedback, their belief was,” I’m incapable, incompetent, and unworthy”.
The difficulty came when I challenged them to consider that their performance may not be connected to their self-worth. To them, this was paradoxical. Receiving negative feedback and self-worth could not exist simultaneously.
I’m asking that a new possibility be considered.
‘How is it possible that what I do isn’t who I am?’ This was a confronting question. It required that they rethink their understanding of productivity, of performance, of others’ perspective. The common tendency is to focus on one side of the argument and double down – hyperfocus on reasons why their thought process is true and accurate. So, I taught them about cognitive distortions, which are basically inaccurate thinking patterns. We all have them, and they tend to show up in big ways when we’re stressed.
Essentially, asking this basic question necessitated a critical process: rewiring the brain. By acquiring more information, our brains are integrating data for a more complete and whole picture.
Simply put, embracing paradox is important for various reasons:
1. It increases mental flexibility, so we adapt to information and situations easier.
2. Understanding seemingly opposite ideas or concepts allows for complexity and nuance, so we can discuss controversial or difficult topics with grace.
3. Expanding our brain’s neural wiring stretches us toward a growth edge, thereby expanding our resilience in the face of stress.
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Links for more information:
How to Embrace the Paradox Mindset
The Importance of Assimilation in Adaptation
Understanding Assimilation and Accommodation in Psychology
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