Paul K. Chafetz, PhD Clinical Psychology
Wouldn’t it be great if our friends and our relatives were perfect in every way?
Probably some of them are indeed terrific in many ways, but, alas, not quite in every way. We think to ourselves, “If only…” Other friends or relatives, while still beloved, are far from perfect. They have some obvious character flaws. We think to ourselves, “I know they have many strengths, but they do such and such terrible things.” Sometimes this dichotomy about a friend or relative confuses us. We ask ourselves, “Which aspect of them is their real personality? Are they fundamentally a good person or a bad person? Are they fundamentally good or bad for me? Should I stay in this relationship or end it?”Another way that the dichotomies of another person confuse us happens when we observe their blessings and burdens. A friend or relative may be amazingly wealthy, but they have lost all contact with their children and grandchildren. A friend or relative may be happily married, but their spouse unfortunately has a serious illness. A friend or relative may be fully healthy and established in a good career, but they are unmarried and lonely. A friend or relative may have a spouse who is abrasive, but who is also hardworking and quietly generous to many in need. The blessings in these people’s lives may make us envious, but we would never want to have their burdens.
Some of my clients agonize over the contradictions they see in other people’s fortunes. They are paralyzed when I ask them, “Would you trade places with them?”
I contend that the barrier to mastering these dilemmas is the use of the word, but. This word misleads us into thinking that there should be no inconsistencies in a single person. How silly! Nothing is more normal than a person having strengths and weaknesses. Everyone does!
Instead of but, we should say and. A person has certain strengths, and they have certain weaknesses. The mature and realistic way to view any person is to acknowledge all aspects of them and take them as a whole. I call this integration. We must accept each person as a totality, a single package.
If we do this, questions like “Are they fundamentally good or bad for me?” and “Would you trade places with them?” become much easier to answer. Just do the math. Does the good outweigh the bad, or vice versa? Are any of the bad aspects deal breakers? Are any of the good aspects impossible to live without? Either way, there will always be an opposing argument, but with the status of a minority report, not an insurmountable barrier to judgment. The opposing argument is no longer a but, but rather an and that we know is an inextricable part of the whole person.
It is the entire person that we must take or leave. We can only do this if we have the psychological depth to integrate their good and bad in our head.