What is Both/And Thinking?
How two words can change your outlook and your relationship with yourself.
Posted February 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Allow me to introduce you to one of the most important concepts in my professional and personal life. This reality-shifting mindset can relieve anxiety, promote healing, and encourage relationship growth.
I’m talking about “both/and.”
The basis of both/and is that multiple things can be true at the same time and that everybody has a right to their experience, regardless of what somebody else is experiencing. Not revolutionary perhaps, but in a world that promotes a zero-sum approach to emotional responses and individual situations, both/and will crack your world wide open.
Both/And’s Approach to Emotional Experiences
Both/and says that you can and almost certainly will feel more than one thing at a time. You can feel both grateful and resentful of the pressures of parenthood. You can feel both exhilarated by a high-powered position and overwhelmed by the sacrifices that it demands. You can feel both appreciative to stay home with your kids and trapped by its routines. You can both love your career and wish you had more time with family. You can feel both ambitious and content.
Both/and honors the full complicated reality that life presents. When you experience a devastating loss like death, a divorce, a breakup, or a life change, you can feel both grief and relief. You can feel both sadness and gratitude. And overwhelm. And anger. You can feel both devastated by a relationship’s end and confident that ending it was the right decision.
Making Room for Everybody’s Pain
In addition to making room for multiple emotions, both/and makes room for multiple people’s experiences, regardless of whose is “worse.” Instead of downplaying our experience because somebody else has it worse, (either I can feel pain or they can, and since theirs is worse, I should be fine), both/and says that both of you can feel what you feel and there is room for everybody’s pain.
In an either/or world, the mother with access to childcare should only feel gratitude and contentment because after all, there are single mothers out there working two jobs. But pain and suffering are not pie. There is room for both women’s struggles without comparison. Somebody else’s cancer does not make your flu less difficult; it just means that somebody else has cancer. They are both true and can coexist without one lessening the other.
Letting Go of an Either/Or Mindset
Somewhere along the way, either/or became a dominant cognitive paradigm. We learned that our experience was singular and linear. We could only feel one thing at a time. We also learned that in the face of others' pain, there isn’t room for our own. Not so.
What Both/And is NOT
Both/and is not the enemy of gratitude or perspective. It does not promote wallowing. Instead, both/and makes room for the full range of experience, both in terms of how many things we can and will feel at once and regardless of how others experience their own lives. Both/and creates breathing room so you can work through an experience without judgment.
If you’ve consistently employed either/or thinking, both/and will require time and intentionality to adopt. It will require a conscious moment of asking yourself things like:
- “Can both of these be true?”
- “Can I feel multiple things at once?”
- “Is it possible that this other person’s pain doesn’t mean I have to be ok right now?”
- “Can I just notice what I’m experiencing without judgment?”
But you may just notice that this permission from yourself will feel oddly like relief.