I used to been a person who believed I needed to know the answer before I asked the question. This was actually advice I received when I was younger and it seemed like sage wisdom at the time. Today, I know better.
Who knows why I have always been such an anxious person. So afraid of the unknown. So afraid of other people. So afraid of my own heart and mind that seemed to be seeing a different world than most around me. A heart and mind that always felt chaotic, overwhelmed, and lonely. What seems to be true is that this is a combination of a thousand life events over the course of my development that helped me believe that things might be ok but only if you silence the most authentic parts of yourself that long to be made free. To ensure safety we cannot also be free. At least that was the story I told myself for decades.
If I was supposed to know the answer before I asked the question then how could I ever learn anything new? How could I find the courage to be bad at things I wanted to do well? How could I love myself in the process of becoming? The answers to these questions for many years was, I can't, I won't, and I shouldn't. So I lived in fear and I suffered in silence.
I have had to create a new story for myself. Over and over. Because that is the work. We are repeatedly invited to re-evaluate to determine if the story we are telling is serving us. So often people land on a narrative of themselves and they remain committed to it for a lifetime often wondering why they are so unhappy, unfulfilled, or unseen in their current reality. What if the story you wrote for yourself at 20 or 22 is no longer enough for you at 40 or 55?
I just had an amazing conversation with one of my oldest friends who I hadn't spoken to in way too long. Life, family, work, and distance have created space that I hate but this person remains one of the most important people I have ever been connected to. We acted together, lived together, and created endless life drama together, or at least alongside one another decades ago. She stood alongside me for many years when I was at my worst, my most afraid, most self-destructive, most unable to see my own worth in the face of all my mistakes.I like to believe we did this for each other.
This conversation, as is usually the case when we catch-up, was filled with wisdom, love, and honesty about how hard it is to make sense of life. It centered a very important message that I felt compelled to share with you. A message that came from a silly thing I said about Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Improvisational Comedy..."Yes...and, meets Both/And, is my sweet spot!" when trying to describe my work as a therapist, a storyteller, and therapeutic storytelling coach. This little mantra is a lifetime in the making.
"Yes...and" is the philosophy that guides Improv comedy. It was born from the mutual agreement that when interacting with others on stage, an improviser should always accept the premise that is being presented to them by their fellow performers (Yes), then expand upon it in their own contribution (and). No matter if what they have been presented with is not what they were expecting, they think it is ridiculous, or they hate it out right - the best comedic outcomes prove they must accept it and respond to it in their own way. Yes...and is also a painfully simple philosophy on how to live a life of peace and humor. It is the embodiment of "Radical Acceptance" a term in dialectical behavior therapy that is all about meeting things as they are rather than how we hoped, expected, or planned for them to be.
Let's say I go to the DMV and though I remember scheduling the appointment online and I have a confirmation email, when I arrive they don't have record of my appointment in the system. The first inclination for many of us, myself included, is to be angry, frustrated, disappointed, annoyed, rude, or at the very least passive aggressive to the person sitting in front of us. I cannot "Karen" my way out of this situation and the harder I try to make things the way I had expected them to be the more suffering I cause myself and those around me. Yes...and, provides me with a model for how to respond to life's unexpected moments with dignity, compassion, grace, and maybe even humor. "It's not what I was hoping for but I may as well make the most of it right now."
A "both/and" approach takes "Yes...and" and expands upon it. Both/And is based in the concept of dialectics - as used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy - described very simply as "the existence of opposites." This means that two opposing facts can be true simultaneously. I love this because it creates space for both the processing of difficult emotions AND for responding to difficult situations with reason. At the DMV, I am allowed to acknowledge the frustration I feel for this inconvenience AND act in a way that honors the humanity and fallibility of the people and systems I am faced with in the moment. "Technology can be unreliable which is frustrating - and I know this isn't your fault. Can you help me get this done as quickly as possible so I can get back to work by the end of my lunch hour?"
Being able to hold both/and in our minds simultaneously is also amazing for problem solving. The DMV may not be fixable through sheer will and dialectical thinking; yet being able to think critically, keeping our emotions in check, while also holding space for those emotions and the real life circumstances from which they arise can create incredible opportunity for advocacy, activism, and change. "When I went to the DMV on my lunch hour expecting the time slot that I registered for to be available and it wasn't, I felt so afraid that I would not make it back to work by the end of my lunch hour and that would lead to me being reprimanded or fired. I need my job and I need my drivers license. They are both important and I need to trust that this system will work the way it says it will." This is a great letter to a legislator, talking point for a lawmaker, or letter to the editor to advocate making change at the DMV. It recognizes both the systemic failure and the human impact. This skill is also effective at work, in relationships, and as you navigate the world in almost every situation.
Most of us have been socialized in a world of "BUT" rather than "AND." It's so easy to immediately dismiss our emotions, challenges in relationships, or solutions to problems by introducing a thought, feeling, or idea and following it with a "BUT.". "I have always dreamed of becoming a therapist and helping people, BUT, it's expensive and it takes time and I just don't know how I would be able to do it." The dream and the passion are so strong and present. Then we shutdown all possibility with the "BUT" that says, "these are nice thoughts but there are no solutions to these issues. Just stop dreaming."
What if instead of "BUT" the would-be therapist replaced it with an "AND"? How could that change the way they think about what is possible?
"I have always dreamed of becoming a therapist and helping people. AND, I know it's expensive, takes time, and I can't really imagine how I would make that happen...I don't want to let go of the dream that feels so right. I am going to do some research, get some advice from people who have done it and make a plan." Using the "and" here allows them to acknowledge both their dreams and the challenges that stand in the way. Challenges do not have to be deal breakers - in fact they are often our greatest teachers. If we are only in the habit of seeing them as insurmountable "BUTs" we rob ourselves of so many opportunities for growth. Is it really possible to change everything by first changing a tiny 3-letter word? Can it hurt to try?
If once upon a time I had received this information rather than "don't ask questions you don't already have the answer to," I would have been saved so much pain. It would have been easier for me to accept the reality of suffering as a part of every human's experience of being alive. I would not have been so hard on myself when I didn't know how to do things or made mistakes. I would have also been able to understand how much of my own suffering was not a result of this shared reality but of my own unwillingness to accept and face things as they were rather than as I wished, hoped, or expected them to be.
There are no easy answers and philosophies only take us so far. What I have realized is that showing up to life with "Yes...and meets Both/And" provides a sense of peace, hope, and acceptance that no matter the circumstance all I have to do is take a deep breath and respond to what is happening in front of me in this moment. I worry about the next one when it happens. It takes a lot of courage to be this messy.
What are your "Yes...and, meets Both/And" moments? What other philosophies have you discovered to help you make things make sense? Share them with us!