Practical Optimism

The Bull x The Horns: How can I seek balance among polarizing forces?

Psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke address the implications of either-or decision making.

Q: I am a Libra and by nature I seek balance. People say it makes me a chameleon, always blending in as needed whether in relationships or job choices-both of which tend to be toxic. My question is, how do I find a career that allows me to seek harmony but not get lost in the process? 

—In Harmony

Dear Harmony:

Defining yourself as a Libra suggests you may believe that some characteristics of your personality and aspirations are immutable, long ago determined by the date you were born. But in fact, all of us can (and often do) make adjustments in our ways of thinking and behaving throughout our lives, which demonstrates pretty persuasively that we actually have more opportunities for choice than we think. It’s a tremendously optimistic feature of human beings.

This is not to say that the timing of one’s birth has no effect on life experiences. Children born in late summer who enter kindergarten as very young five-year-olds, for example, tend to fare differently than children born in the fall who begin school the following year as near-six-year-olds. Same goes for children joining organized sports leagues. And the differences in children’s early experiences that stem from these age differences can certainly influence how children come to view themselves and their capabilities. But these birth-date differences are entirely terrestrial in nature; no celestial intervention required.

Now on to your search for harmony. The words we use to describe what we do often reflect how positively or negatively we view our personal attributes. One person’s quest for “balance” is another person’s lack of personal conviction, hence the chameleon label that some people have applied to you. All of us encounter choices that require some action on our part, and these are often framed in terms of either-or decision making. But there are often more than two options available to us.

While compromise in pursuit of harmony is often a healthy approach to human interactions, it is a problem if doing so requires your giving up what you really care about.

It’s interesting to consider how culture influences how we think about resolving dilemmas and choice making. Richard Nisbett and his colleagues have made a number of fascinating observations about the influences of culture on thinking and perception. People from Western cultures (like the United States and Western Europe) tend to resolve dilemmas by choosing one horn or the other. This approach is even reflected in Western proverbs, many of which recommend precise courses of action, even though different proverbs sometimes conflict with each other. “He who hesitates is lost,” promotes prompt action. “Look before you leap,” promotes patience and caution. Apparently, you should look before you leap…. except when you shouldn’t hesitate.

Eastern cultures (like China or Korea) prize resolving conflicts through compromise, avoiding either-or thinking. Eastern proverbs often embrace contradictions in ways that may sound strange to Westerners. For example, the proverb “Sorrow is born of excessive joy,” is a statement about the dual nature of our extreme experiences, but its meaning is not explicit and may not readily apparent.

When you choose to behave in ways that are inconsistent with what you truly believe, in an effort to avoid conflict and, as you put it, blend in, you force yourself to actively suppress aspects of who you are and who you would like to be. We all have to rein in our own behavior from time to time, of course, but doing so frequently and in multiple situations, as you have discovered, is stressful, joyless, and exhausting. Defining your situation as a dilemma (“I either have to be honest and risk offending people, or I have to pretend that I agree with whatever’s going on in the environment I’m in.”) is akin to the more Western approach to decision making.

This raises the question of whether it’s really necessary to either be yourself or do what you think others expect of you. The personality characteristic of Agreeableness (one of the Big Five characteristics that psychologists have identified) reflects how much people are motivated to get along with others. People who are very high in this characteristic often avoid disagreeing with others and promoting their own needs, because they are concerned about the others’ possible reactions to their standing up for themselves. As a result, highly agreeable people may find that they do not get what they want from relationship partners or in the workplace.

An important first step forward for you is to figure out the source of your tendency to change in order to blend in. If you’re generally willing to stand up for yourself, but feel that compromise is sometimes a better path than picking one extreme or another, then you should feel confident in pursuing your current strategy. But, if you compromise mostly to avoid upsetting other people and doing so makes you uncomfortable, then it may be time to give voice to what you really want.

And perhaps the best way to begin is by trying it out. Practice formulating a simple sentence that states clearly what you really care about or what you really want. Then, say it aloud to the people around you. You just might find that the people in your professional and personal lives respect your wishes more than you think they will.

If the reactions to your initial attempts are consistently negative, however, then it may be time to look for people and workplaces that are more compatible with your own values and more accepting of individual differences. All relationships require compromises from time to time, but those that require strict adherence to patterns of speech and behavior that conflict with your deeply held values are not sustainable.

While compromise in pursuit of harmony is often a healthy approach to human interactions, it is a problem if doing so requires your giving up what you really care about. It’s possible to be yourself while at the same time realizing the benefits of making appropriate accommodations that contribute to positive human relationships.

—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke

The Bull x The Horns advice column is authored by psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke, hosts of the Two Guys on Your Head podcast. This column represents the advice of Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke and not the views or opinions of Frost Bank.

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