Have you ever heard a self-help teacher or friend say the words—Don’t should yourself…? As if should were a nasty word?

If so, what do you think about this phrase?

For a long time, I’d hear people admonishing themselves for saying the word should, and it would rub me the wrong way, but I didn’t quite know why.

Then I discovered that the English word should comes from the same root as the Dutch and German word schuld, which means both guilt and debt.

According to YourDailyGerman.com:

“(For) some two thousand years, Schuld was simply about a sort of obligation that you had toward someone.

Like…bringing the smith a boar because he fixed your ax or giving the chieftain a barrel of ale because he won the last drinking competition.”

As a white person with multiple proximities to systemic power living on stolen land, I believe that I have a schuld—

a debt rooted in unearned privilege, an obligation to pay reparations and to work to dismantle imperialism and white supremacy, the systems that give rise to my privilege.

I believe there are some things I really should do.

And yet, many people also use the word should to judge themselves into complying with dominant culture’s expectations, and this sense of obligation to the status quo does not serve most of us well.

The inherent tension in the word should points to the deeper tension that most of us who care deeply about social justice and collective wellbeing grapple with—

How do we simultaneously hold our obligations to the collective and our obligations to ourselves?

If we show up for others and not for ourselves, we risk slipping into saviordom, which can perpetuate top-down dynamics, rob people on the margins of systemic power of their agency, and burn us out.

On the other hand, if we only show up for ourselves but not for others, we abdicate our responsibility to the collective, and our complacency perpetuates injustice and collective dis-ease.

And so, I believe we have a responsibility to learn to navigate the both-and, dancing between the polarity of self-care and collective-care over our days, weeks, and lifetimes.

But because dominant culture does not train us to hold the both-and well and instead, teaches us to view the world as opposing binaries—good guys or bad guys, us or them, right or wrong—it can feel uncomfortable and challenging to hold the tension of conflicting values and realities.

And so, most of us have a tendency to cling to one side of a polarity at the detriment of the whole. This either-or approach to life leads many people to all-or-nothing behavior—either working 24/7 or binging Netflix, either doing a daily self-care practice or none at all.

And yet, the fact is that when we look closely, we can see that all of life expresses itself in polarities—apparent opposites that need each other to form a whole—night/day, birth/death, cold/hot, soft/hard, chaos/order, knowing/not knowing, yes/no, yin/yang, global/local, nature/nurture, receiving/giving, holding space for pain/holding space for joy, this is a nightmarish time / this is an extraordinary time.

To bring forth the word that we long for, we must learn to perceive, honor, and skillfully navigate the polarities inherent in our work and in all of life.

It is true that those of us who are committed to showing up on the front-lines of life and liberation are unlikely to find any perfect balance or to escape the tensions inherent in the conflicting realities we face.

And yet, we humans do have the inherent potential to cultivate the capacity to hold the tensions in ways that make us proud.

We can learn to show up for social change and take good care of ourselves, give and receive, say yes and say no, act and rest, be effective and have fun. Like all of creation, we are designed to honor the full expression of life living through us.

For instance, one of my core values is solidarity, and this value often demands long hours of me. And yet, I also value spaciousness. Sometimes, my value of solidarity asks me to go campaign mode and fill my days trying to get an ordinance passed, a budget priority funded, or a candidate elected. Other times, my value of spaciousness directs me to say no to requests that the Activist or Hard-Worker in me wishes I could say yes to.

It can sometimes feel impossible to honor both solidarity and spaciousness at the same time, but with lots of practice, I’ve come to a place in my life in which I feel good about how I honor them both over the course of my weeks and months.

From now on, I challenge you to notice when either-or thinking pops up in your mind—when you hear yourself asking “Is it this or that?” or negating reality with the tiny yet insidious word “but”— and to get curious about how you might hold the both-and and honor multiple seemingly contradictory values, not necessarily in one single moment, but over the course of your week, month, and lifetime.

Polarity Squares

If you feel torn between two apparently conflicting values, priorities, or realities, I want to offer you a practice called Polarity Squares, which I first encountered from my Presence-Based Coaching teachers, who themselves learned it from Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management.

In this practice we choose a polarity to work with and create a four-quadrant grid. We label the two columns of the grid with words that represent each side of a polarity (for example, the left column for self-care and the right column for collective-care or the left column for giving and right column for receiving). We label the top row—What I love about this side—and the bottom row—What I fear about this side.

Then, we fill in each quadrant, writing down what we love and fear about each side of the polarity.

By bringing awareness to what we love and fear about two sides of any given polarity, we cultivate the ability to notice our habitual pulls and tendencies and to hold each side without fleeing to the apparent comfort of the other.

For example, a client of mine who was recently promoted to a managerial role felt torn between showing up in ways that would help her staff like her and ways that earned her respect. She named her polarities “Being Boss” and “Being Part of the Team”.

Her polarity square looked like this:

Being the Boss                                                     Being Part of the Team

What I love about this side:

Respect, Efficiency, Effectiveness, Get the job done, Order, Teamwork, Collaboration, Clarity, Less Stress, My boss’s respect me too, Trust, Clean, People listen, Prevent conflict


What I love about this side:

Everyone gets along, people collaborate, people like me, Good team energy, People might be more self-motivated, People might have more creative ideas, Avoid conflict, Feels easier, Belonging, Maybe more fun, People listen too

 What I fear about this side:

Being unnecessarily bossy, going too far, being like a dictator or tyrannical, being mean, pushing people around, creating conflict, people not liking me, creating too rigid boundaries, people not listening to me or really respecting me

What I fear about this side:

Being a pushover, No one listens to or respects me, Nothing gets done, Messy, Feeling uncertain, I end up doing all the work, I can’t trust people to do their work, creating conflict because things are unclear, People crossing the lines, Stressed often


Filling out the polarity square helped my client acknowledge what her inner Boss and her inner Team Member longed for, and this awareness helped her to show up in ways that were both kind and assertive, collaborative and decisive.

Your turn!

I invite you to take the following steps to create a polarity square now:

1. Do your best to name the two sides of a polarity you’re grappling with. Try to find the essential quality or underlying need that each side represents. Although it can be potent to choose words that are pure opposites, I’ve found that’s unnecessary. Just choose two needs that you find yourself torn between. You can look at this Needs List for help finding words that resonate. Choose words that feel non-judgmental.

2. Label the left and right columns of the square below with the names of each side of the polarity. You can also create a polarity square with tape on the floor that is big enough for you to stand in the different quadrants. This helps some people access a felt sense of each quadrant.

Pole A:                                                           Pole B:



3. Sense into one quadrant at a time, and write down everything that comes up in that quadrant. If thoughts about another quadrant arise, go to the corresponding quadrant and write them down there. You might also open the online thesaurus, wordhippo.com, and look up words that resonate.

4. Then shift to the next quadrant that draws your attention. Write down everything that comes up for you there.

If you have an easier time with some quadrants than with others (as many people do), this can be a sign of trauma, stories, or habits that have led you to habitually cling to one side of the polarity or the other. Play with stretching yourself to spend time in the uncomfortable quadrant and notice what feelings, thoughts, and insights arise there.

  1. Keep asking What else? in each quadrant until you feel complete.
  2. When you’re complete, ask yourself: What do I know now about each side of this polarity?
  3. Allow the polarity square to percolate in the pot on the backburner of your mind for the next several days, and jot down any new insights that arise.

For now, I am wishing you the freedom and satisfaction of being able to dance in the both-and and offer yourself and your community the care you both deserve.


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