Middle ground

You might have noticed how much advertisers like the word “extreme.” It’s mostly used to appeal to young people in order to sell them soft drinks or video games and such. Extreme taste, extreme action, extreme fun. I once saw a church sign that tempted the faithful with “Extreme Praise and Worship,” which conjured up an amusing image of skateboarding parishioners shouting hymns while guzzling Mountain Dew. In this context, “extreme” is a good thing, but in the real world, it’s actually rather problematic.
 
Here’s an example of when “extreme” isn’t so great: actual religious extremism. Religion takes a lot of flak, because people do nutty things in the name of their religion, like blowing up other human beings, but religion per se is not the problem. The problem is extremism. The vast majority of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc. have no desire to hurt anyone, and in fact, will often partake in things like charitable giving because their religion tells them to. It’s the extremists that make headlines by waging war on the unbelievers. When viewed from this perspective, “extreme” doesn’t look so great.
 
For most of us, the problem of extremes takes a somewhat less dramatic form, but it’s still a problem. Here’s a more common example: black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. For instance, if I look at other people (or myself) in this manner, then I see people as either wonderful and awesome, or as terrible. If you do something nice for me, then you’re the best person ever, but if you hurt my feelings, then you’re an awful human being. This isn’t that uncommon. In this worldview, there is no middle ground, no gray area. Another example of extremism is perfectionism. If I am a perfectionist, anything less than perfection is a failure, which means virtually everything I attempt is a failure.
Another example is extreme passivity. Many people routinely have their boundaries violated because they are too passive to maintain them. This practice is sometimes justified by statements like, “I’m too nice a guy,” or, “I don’t want to be mean.” Such statements indicate the individual is confusing kindness with passivity, when in fact they are not the same thing. One can learn to be kind and assertive, but assertiveness is difficult for the extreme thinker because it is an example of middle ground.
 
I am a big advocate of middle ground, or moderation, or happy medium, or balance or whatever you want to call it. Unfortunately, middle ground isn’t always easy to find. For some reason, it is often easier to live in the extreme, even with all the problems that come with it. Many of my clients, while struggling to find middle ground, will vacillate between two extremes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it does result in finding middle ground eventually. There is a saying that goes, “The pendulum must swing both ways before it comes to rest in the middle.” This means that sometimes we have to go from one extreme to another before we find a balance between the two. 
 
An example of this comes in the form of William, a 30-year-old client who describes himself as a “people-pleaser.” William was nice to the point of passivity, or, as he put it, “a door-mat.” When he finally accepted the reality that it was impossible to please everyone, and it was okay if people didn’t like him, he flirted with the opposite end of the spectrum for a brief period. During this time, William described himself as “a kitten who just discovered his claws.” He became bold, at times aggressive, and for a while, he enjoyed his newfound sense of power. But that wasn’t his true nature, and eventually, he settled into a middle ground that allowed him to be assertive, yet kind, which is in keeping with who he really is. He no longer worries about hurting other people’s feelings by not being exactly who they want him to be… but he’s still a nice guy. He is currently in school, studying to be a social worker, and his dream is to work with kids who were victims of abuse, as he was.
A common challenge for many of my clients concerns the matter of responsibility. This is another area where middle ground can be quite difficult, and people often dwell in extremes. On one end of the spectrum is a total lack of responsibility, a belief that “nothing is my fault.” We’ve all encountered the person who refuses to accept responsibility, even when he is clearly at fault. On the other end of the spectrum is extreme over-responsibility. This is the person who takes the blame and feels guilty for everything, even when she has done nothing wrong. One of her most common utterances is, “I’m sorry.” And then there is the individual who dwells in both extremes, who never takes responsibility for some things, and takes more than his fair share of responsibility in others.
 
I am all in favor of being a responsible person, but I encourage people to take reasonable responsibility. This means owning what is ours, and not owning what isn’t. This can be very difficult, especially in the arena of interpersonal relationships. I have seen many clients who have expressed to me feeling responsible for their partner’s happiness, or feeling guilty for the lack thereof. I’ve said this before, and here it is again: you are not responsible for your partner’s happiness, or anyone else’s, except your own. Does that sound callous? It did to me, the first time I heard it, and I rejected it, at my peril. Now, this does not mean you have permission to act like a cad. What it means is this: You can (and should) be responsible to your partner, but not for him or her. In other words, you have a responsibility to behave in a caring, respectful, and trustworthy manner, but it’s still not your job to make your partner happy.
 
Here’s a common example: Let’s say Mark and Linda are a couple. Linda has never done anything to betray Mark’s trust, but Mark still doesn’t trust her. He snoops through her phone and reads her emails, convinced that he will find evidence she is cheating on him. Linda tried everything in her power to allay Mark’s suspicions, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t convince him that she isn’t about to cheat on him. In Mark’s mind, the problem is that Linda isn’t trying hard enough to prove she is trustworthy. And if Linda buys into this line of thinking, then she will feel guilty for not being able to banish Mark’s fears. In this case, both of them believe Linda is responsible for Mark’s sense of well-being. This is an error. The fact is, Mark’s fears of betrayal were in place well before he ever met Linda, so how could they be her responsibility? It’s likely that Mark’s fears are the result of some form of abandonment early in his life, which means those feelings are not his fault. However, working through his fears to the point where he is capable of maintaining a reasonably healthy relationship is Mark’s responsibility, and his alone. Linda can’t do it for him. She can behave in a trustworthy manner, but she is not responsible for Mark’s ability or inability to trust. If she chooses middle ground, then she will feel empathy and kindness for Mark, but not guilt. 
 
All-or-nothing thinking can affect many areas of our lives. Here are some examples: 1. “I’ve been going overboard with the drinking lately, so I’m giving up alcohol completely.” 2. “My goal was to go to the gym three times a week, but it wasn’t happening, so I gave up.” 3. “I finally found the courage to ask someone out, and they said no. I’ll never make that mistake again.” 4. “I made a mistake at work. I’m the world’s biggest screw-up.” 5. “I’d love to be a writer, but lately, I’ve really been getting into photography, so I guess it’s goodbye to writing.” 6. “Chris and I had a big argument, so now I’m sure all my friends hate me.” 7. “My plan didn’t work. I’m a failure, and there’s no point in trying.”
 
Now, here are some responses to the above statements. 1. Try drinking in moderation. If you can’t, then you probably should stop completely, but find out first. 2. Go when you can. Some exercise is better than none. 3. No one ever died of rejection. Make it your goal to get shot down fifty times, until either it stops bothering you, or someone says yes (a more likely scenario). 4. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes mean you are doing something. Good for you. 5. There’s no rule that says you can’t do both. 6. You’re making a big assumption without evidence, and if all your friends did hate you because of an argument with one person, then they’re crappy friends. 7. Ever heard of J.K. Rowling? She once referred to herself as “the biggest failure I know,” and her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected by 12 separate publishing houses before it was accepted by Bloomsbury. Even then, she was told she had better find a day job, because she had no future as a writer. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying.
 
 As I mentioned above, middle ground isn’t always an easy place to find, but we benefit any time we do find it. As with many tasks, our chances of success increase with a little outside help.
 

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