Read time: 10 minutes
Here’s a typical story: boy meets girl, girl meets boy. He said one thing, she said another. After several dates and some mclovin’, they ended up officially together.
But after several months, they had to break up and it wasn’t amicable. It was a bad break up, to the point that he ended up hating everything about her. The same goes for her, she hated everything about him.
The girl likes to put olive oil on her salad and has a strict organic diet. She’s does yoga, loves listening to Foster The People, and avidly reads self-development books. She’s a millennial-hipster through and through. She’s a health buff and a Boston native, thus it’s not a surprise that she’s a Tom Brady fangirl and roots for the New England Patriots.
He, on the other hand, likes coconut oil and is into paleo diet. He’s a health buff as well but not as much as his ex. He’s a millennial, but not a hipster. He’s more of a traditional dude with so-called family values, but he tries to keep an open mind. Originally from Los Angeles, he moved to Boston for college where he met his now ex-girlfriend.
There were many reasons for their break up. But what is notable after the break up is how both disconnected themselves from the things that are associated with the other.
She now dislikes coconut oil and is disgusted when she sees a jar of it. She hates anything that has to do with the West Coast, and she now doesn’t even like the idea of visiting Los Angeles.
He now dislikes salads and olive oil. While it’s true that many olive oils out there are fake, he became completely dismissive of olive oil. He also became completely dismissive of organic foods, to the point that he thinks it’s just another scam and that it makes no difference. Self-development books all seem silly for him. No more Foster The People tracks for him. And, of course, he now hates Tom Brady and the Patriots.
You may find this story an exaggeration but it happens, and this simple story illustrates how one can become too polarized. For the couple described, it can be considered an understandable reaction due to the pain of break up. They would probably come around and think more clearly in a few months or so. But for many it can be a much longer process, even a permanent one, especially if not addressed. It can become deeply embedded in the mind to the point of dysfunction, spilling onto many areas of life.
This kind of polarization happens daily and in many different circumstances, not to mention the subjects of politics and religion. It’s not just enough to acknowledge our biases, because we can become too unconscious or unaware. People can become completely dismissive of an opposing view or side because of their favored perspectives or beliefs.
It’s the classic complete elimination by association or the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality. Like in the story mentioned, the coconut oil or whatever oil each prefers is disliked by the other, but it has nothing to do with their failed relationship.
We’re all polarized in our own unique ways because we come from different backgrounds, contexts, and experiences—but at times it can get extreme. And when it gets extreme, dangerous polarization happens.
Being dangerously polarized can result in a lot of mental blind spots. Consequently, an individual or a group may be unable to keep their emotions in check, and rely heavily on feeling good and beliefs that are familiar and convenient. It can become a display as well of overcompensation or bravado.
But of course, feeling good is not enough. Just because you feel good and it feels right doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right, especially if you’re angry. Whatever perception or belief system you may have, there are always more to discover.
According to psychologist Stephen Larsen, the author of The Fundamentalist Mind, polarized thinking is dangerous. When dealing with fundamentalism, the mind gets so locked up that it creates a severe disconnect with what is really happening. The narrative for an individual or a group, can predispose a big gap from reality. The narrative becomes merely a distraction, easily believed but far from hitting the mark. The perspective is limited and there is no flexibility in thinking. Larsen said that:
“fluidity, versatility, flexibility and ability to move between states as the environment requires….stuckness and rigidity are the enemy—and any social or religious program that locks up the nervous system into just one among its many states, or polarizes it into opposites, is pathological.”
When it comes to election campaigns, it’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric and narratives that politicians are throwing against each other. Just like religion, politics is a very polarizing topic.
I try to avoid those two topics during family reunions or get-togethers. I myself witnessed, not so long ago, an old lady at a dinner party referring to Mexicans as monkeys and African-Americans as niggers. I was definitely shocked, and I realized that another guest I had spoken to had already moved to another table. She was also very dismissive to a lot of facts in a range of political issues, spewing over-generalizations or blanket statements, and over-simplifications.
It was obvious that she was saying all of it because of whatever pent up emotions or life frustrations she had. It was also obvious that she was doing it for her own self-aggrandizement.
For example, when a religious person votes for someone, the tendency is to cling to a politician who’s “pro-life.” There’s nothing wrong being a “pro-lifer,” but being completely dismissive (unconsciously or consciously) of the root causes of problems and many other issues, such as raising the minimum wage, when to declare wars, pay equality, educational reform, special interests, and others, is counterproductive.
For one, dualistic thinking is predominant in America. That means seeing things only as either/or. It’s also known as black or white thinking. The thinking is self-limiting because it only forces you to make one choice between two.
Good vs evil; Lakers vs Celtics; Science vs Religion; We vs They; Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life and so on.
If you’re a Celtics fan, must you automatically hate Kobe and the Lakers? If you love your husband, would you automatically hate your mother in law? If it’s not this, it’s that?
Another predominant attitude is absolutism: “I’m right and you’re wrong and that’s it, period”; “It’s the law and that’s it, period”; “Those who are not in our religion should be converted or be killed and that’s it, period.”; Women should stay at home and must go make you a sandwich and that’s it, period; My God is the true God and that’s it, period.
When we say things with certainty, it doesn’t mean that that’s it. No matter how certain we can be about something, there’s always more to the story. The problem of being too definitive, or what is referred to as certitude attitude, is that you separate yourself from the unknowns that can be known. At the same time, because of the limitation of the spectrum of facts discussed, reductionism takes place. The danger of this is that the narrative becomes simplistic. It is then joined with black or white type thinking because only one must be the absolute truth. But of course, there are shades of gray. There is a full spectrum of colors to be seen and integrated.
CULTIVATING THE INTEGRATIVE MIND
Black or white thinking is dangerous. In fact, it is a glaring trait of borderline personality disorder and clinical narcissism, both of which have a lot of parallels with fundamentalism. So if you know someone who proudly claims to be a black or white thinker, he or she is most likely in big denial of a problem they may be noticing but too afraid to seek help.
The core issue of borderline personality disorder is emotion dysregulation. What it means is that the person in question is emotionally compromised such that when reacting to circumstances, he or she would have a heightened emotional response (but in the case of narcissism, shallow emotions). Another way of seeing it is the person is no longer able to regulate his or her emotions, so that he or she cannot think rationally.
This takes us again to the idea of managing our emotions and knowing how to invest our emotional well-being. If you devoid yourself of complex emotional experiences or at least have a diversified sense of self, you’re more likely to have a very limited view of reality and you’ll be left with very few tools to cope. You will tend toward unstable reactions instead of being able to face things, especially new and unfamiliar ones, in a collected manner.
Currently, the most studied and recognized treatment for borderline personality disorder is a therapy called dialectical behavior therapy. The therapy involves the overlapping of two minds: the emotional mind and the reasonable/logical mind. It’s also used for bipolar disorder which has a lot of similarities and often mistaken for borderline (and vice versa).
It’s like diving into many untapped parts of yourself, which involves processing your emotions and making peace with parts of you that are conflicting. It involves accessing your emotional blockages or whatever repressed parts of you that play a role in your decisions and your perception of the world. Whether from heightened emotional response or shallow emotion, it affects your reasoning and judgment. This is why going through a grieving process is important. A loss of a loved one, such as a break up, affects everyone significantly and denial is often detrimental. There’s no other way—you just have to go through the process to find that eventual emotional release and the reunification of your self, which in this case means your emotional and reasonable side.
The idea of dialectical behavior therapy is simple, but it has a lot of implications for both treatments and how we should practically be able to view reality itself. A wise mind is a flexible mind. If you think about it, any concepts, be they “favorable” to you or not, can be put in a circle. The goal is to overlap a variety of circles, and integrate them or at least find an overlap. This is essentially the idea behind what makes an integrative mind rather than a fixed one.
This theory also runs parallel to the idea of the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. Fixed mindset, as the name implies, is restrictive because it’s based on the idea that intelligence is static. Conversely, the growth mindset is dynamic, thus integrative.
This takes us again to the idea of “completeness.” Just like in life, things are not perfect. There is no such thing as a system being always complete. Western medicine is not complete; economic formulas are not always complete, scientific equations are not always complete; belief systems are not always complete. Learning never ends. Reality is not absolute or fixed, but it’s dynamic and expansive. This idea is even addressed in higher mathematics and was formally proven by a genius named Kurt Gödel.
In 1931, he published the Incompleteness Theorems. What they essentially proved is that there is no self-contained system of knowledge that can solve any problem, even if it’s perfect or complete in itself. Even when a system is complete in itself, it’s still incomplete and it would always need to expand and integrate with newer or bigger concepts to solve new problems.
So no branch of knowledge is ever complete, and there’s always going to be something bigger and newer to be discovered and integrated, be it about biology, psychology, mathematics, religion, or anything else. This theory suggests that before we can fully understand our universe, we have to be able fully grasp something bigger than the universe itself—or leave it, to understand everything in it and to survive. The same way Stephen Hawking suggested that we would have to leave Earth eventually to make more babies.
Integration is like building Legos or putting together a 1000 piece puzzle to see the full picture. It takes time and effort to put the pieces together. Complications arise from our emotions, biases, bad memories, and limited perceptions. A lot of this comes from the way we learn and the way we are conditioned.
Educational institutions play a big role. It’s destructive when educational institutions condition students as if they already have all the answers and they are the “chosen ones,” when they later become the victims of the limitations of their own beliefs when they sail on to the real world.
I was one of those many students, stuffed with self-esteem as if we already know everything. We were conditioned that one way is the way. Living with many self-assured expressions similar to when England used to be a colonial power, “The way of England is the way of the world.” We had this habit of thinking that one thing solves everything which, again, is too deterministic or so absolutist. It’s okay to be polarizing in a way and this makes for uniqueness but it doesn’t mean it just ends there. Unity and collaboration among diversified parts are needed.
This is a topic and concept that is very much needed in education. For one, American education is in decline. The concept of cultivating an integrative mind is hardly discussed such that there’s only one recent book that is addressing it, and it’s psychologist Tobin Hart’s The Integrative Mind. The concept is the same; it’s about expansion and addition of newer methods and concepts. Just like dialectical behavior therapy, the goal is to reach a more balanced and integrative thinking. According to him, we need an education system that cultivates imaginative, subjective and emphatic ways of knowing—in addition to objective and deductive approaches—to reach a more balanced and integrative thinking.
“People wrap themselves in their beliefs. And they do it in such a way that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free.”
Beliefs by nature can be proven false. Beliefs can be modified, improved or evolved. The problem with fundamentalism or polarized thinking is that it conditions the mind to harbor beliefs that are absolute, immovable, inflexible as if forever applicable to anything at all times. It also disregards emotional needs. Thus, this makes polarized thinking restrictive and maladaptive to an ever-changing complexity of living, and this is where a more integrative approach could make a difference as we learn more about ourselves and the world.
We’re living in an increasingly polarizing time than ever. Fundamentalism is on the rise as the world is currently going through many major shifts. Rapid technological changes are overwhelming us. Human needs cannot be underestimated and it’s more dangerous to not address them. Thus, education needs to keep up and income inequality needs to be addressed.
Even with the idea of a “balanced” or “realistic” approach can be polarized. Incrementalism or centrist policies no longer appear to be enough. The so-called “centrist” or “moderate” ideologies are now moving on a more significant level than ever. These many occurring changes are met with great resistance because they involve destroying the old and building the new.
It’s a world on fire.
In our constant push for tolerance in a diversified world, we’re moving towards a more collaborative approach with the many leaps in technology and thinking. Yes, we must constantly evolve our ways in dealing with each other. We must seek out answers and solutions constantly.
But the battle begins between the borders of our own minds.