Sometimes, client’s come to me having internalized mainstream self-help culture’s insistence that we should all just put ourselves first. But they care deeply about the world and struggle to follow this mandate.

Here’s what I tell them:

Although the dominant culture trains us to see the world in either-or dualities—good guys and bad guys, right and wrong—when we look closely, we can see that all life expresses itself in polarities—apparent opposites that depend on each other to create a whole. Night / day; birth / death; cold / hot; soft / hard; chaos / order.[1] You can picture a polarity like an infinity loop:

Likewise, all actions exist along a polarity: giving / receiving; knowing / not knowing; saying yes / saying no; resting / rising; taking space / making space. The list goes on.

The challenge is, through training and trauma, we often learn to habitually cling to one side of a polarity. For example, especially if you were socialized as a woman, you may have learned to cling to the giving end of the giving-receiving polarity and have a hard time receiving or setting boundaries that protect your needs.

When we realize we’ve been stuck on one side of a polarity, many of us do an all-or-nothing move and shift reactively to the other side. The Caretaker says: Screw everyone else! The Giver says: I’m putting myself first! The Achiever says: I’m giving up!

However, the work of becoming whole and free is not about getting rid of any part of ourselves (such as the Caretaker, Giver, or Achiever). We need all parts of ourselves to live fully nourished, actualized lives.

It is true: If we’re burned out from overgiving, we may need to take a break from giving. If we’ve been overdoing, we may need to not do for a while.

Sometimes, a previously overutilized part of ourselves must rest so we can nurture the parts of ourselves that we’ve rejected and neglected (such as the Self-Caretaker, the Receiver, or the One Who Rests). Other times, when they meet the needs of the situation, we can take these well-practiced parts out to play.

Ultimately, becoming more whole looks like learning to dance in the both-and of any polarity: giving and receiving, resting and rising, taking space and making space. Not necessarily at the same time, but in the ways that meet our needs and the situation’s needs at any given moment.

If you’re feeling habitually stuck in one side of a polarity or stuck in a double bind (where you can only imagine being on one side of a polarity or the other—caring for yourself or caring for others, doing either this or that), then I invite you to play with one of my favorite practices:

Polarity Squares

I first encountered this practice in my Presence-Based Coaching training with Doug Silsbee and Bebe Hansen who learned it from Barry Johnson (Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems). My MBA advisor and friend, Beth Tener, later reintroduced it to me, and she learned it from Leslie Temple-Thurston in Marriage of Spirit.

By helping us sense into what we love and fear about each side of a polarity, polarity squares can help us elicit unexpected insights and strengthen our capacity to meet seemingly conflicting needs. Even just plopping this practice in the pot on the backburner of your mind can help new revelations bubble up.

I’ll walk you through the practice now, and I invite you to experiment along, if you’d like.

1.  Identify a challenge you’re facing where you believe that a polarity is at play, and name the two poles that you’re grappling with. Try to find the essential value or underlying need that each side represents for you. For example, you might name the polarity caring for self and caring for others. One client, who grappled with wanting her staff to respect her and like her, named the polarized parts of herself The Boss and The Kind One.

Find words that resonate with you and feel non-judgmental.

2.  Draw a square with lines divided into four quadrants, like this:

square with lines divided into four quadrants

Label the left and right columns with the names of each side of the polarity. Label the top row What I love about this side and label the bottom row What I fear about this side.

3.  Sense into one side of the polarity, and write down everything you love about that side and everything you fear about the other side. Then sense into the other side of the polarity, and write down everything you love  about that side and everything you fear about the other side. For example, if you were working with the Boss and The Kind One your polarity square might look like this:

filled in square with lines divided into four quadrants

4.  Keep asking each side of the polarity What else? until you feel complete.

5.  When you’re complete, ask yourself: What do I know now about each side of the polarity now? What questions do I still have? Write it down.

6.  Allow the idea of the polarity square percolate on the backburner of your mind, jot down new insights as they arise over the next several days.

For an alternative, more somatic approach to polarity squares, you can create the quadrants with tape on the floor, about six feet by six feet in all. Stand in each quadrant, sense the information that arises in your body, and write down what comes up.

If you feel called to play with the polarity square practice, I’d be curious to hear what arises for you. I welcome you to share!

P.S. Does life feel like a constant double-bind?

Like you’re caught between caring for yourself or caring for others?

Deep down, my coaching is about helping people like you cultivate the skills you need to live in the both-and.

It’s about helping you develop the skills you need to become even more effective and find joy in the long haul.

We can feel good about our contributions and experience greater joy, do our best to give birth to the world we long for and work in life-affirming ways, show up for the collective and take good care of ourselves.

Sometimes, we just need help learning how.


Click here to learn more about how I help my clients and about my upcoming Life & Leadership Coaching Cohorts.

Or email me. I’d love to talk with you about it.

[1] My understanding of polarities was deepened greatly by reading Polarity Management: Identifying & Managing Unsolvable Problems by Barry Johnson (Amherst, MA: HRD Press, 2014) and Marriage of Spirit: Enlightened Living in Today’s World by Leslie Temple Thurston (San Francisco, CA: Corelight Press, 2000).


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