Counseling Center

April 24, 2020

Shifting from “but” to “and”: Holding complexity in complex times

Posted by Anne Swenson, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, UWCC

I have friends who have been posting on social media about what they are grateful for each day during the pandemic. I find it very touching and it inspires me to be more grateful for what I have. I also find it irritating because I feel guilty that I’m not that grateful. My mind takes all of this and tells me, “Their gratitude posts are touching, but I’m irritated by them because now I feel bad about myself.” And the “but” in my thinking is the problem. Because the “but” is a message that says that the first part of what I’m feeling is contradicted by the second part. With that “but”, I’ve invalidated half of what I’m feeling.

Our minds do this all the time. Our minds take a messy experience that we’re having and they try to make it simpler by negating half of it. I bet this has happened to you. Have you ever said something like, “I love my friend Maria, but she really bugs me sometimes”?  This might sound like just a small difference in language, but it actually really matters. Because when we use “but”, it means we’re telling ourselves that it can’t be both. That loving someone and having them irritate you are contradictory  experiences that can’t happen at the same time. And when we accept that “but”, it diminishes us. The messy reality is that it’s both – it’s an “and”.

So what we can try to do instead is to replace the “but” with “and”. Instead of saying to yourself, “I’m stressed out by having to quarantine at home, but I’m glad my family isn’t sick,” you say, “I’m stressed out by having to quarantine at home and I’m glad my family isn’t sick.” I try to say to myself, “It’s touching to see how grateful my friends are and I find it irritating.” Both are true and my irritation doesn’t negate the warmth that I feel. I think that now more than ever, we’re all a mix of different, often contradictory thoughts and feelings, all of which are real and valid parts of our experience.

So I invite you to try holding the “and”. Try to catch times that you are saying “but” when describing your experience. And then try to replace the “but” with an “and”. Check in with yourself when you do this. Do you feel more authentic in what you are saying? Do you feel a greater sense of self-understanding? Do you feel less self-judgment? I know that in these times, I can use all the understanding, acceptance, and compassion that I can find. This practice brings me a bit closer and I hope it will for you too.