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Integrating Opposite Characters

Excerpt from the forthcoming Inner Team Dialogue book. (c) Paul Wyman 2023

Each character on the Inner Team has one or more opposites which play a complementary, balancing role.

For example, the part of you which wants to fit in is balanced by a part of you which wants to stand out. The part of you which navigates the world by reason is balanced by the part which is guided by passion.

These opposites are inescapable tensions we all experience, to a greater or lesser degree. The technical term for how these opposite forces relate to each other is a polarity. This concept draws on the work of Barry Johnson, who defines a Polarity as “a pair of opposite, seemingly contradictory states which are interdependent.”

Polarities are balances to find, not problems to solve. Choosing one side of a polarity over another is a bit like choosing whether you prefer your left or right leg. Walking is considerably easier when you use both.

Balancing polarities requires a shift in thinking from either/or to both/and. But finding this both/and balance between opposites can be challenging. When one character is an Insider on your Inner Team, it increases the chances (although does not guarantee) that its opposite will be an Outsider. We have preferences for one side of most polarities, in the same sense that we have a dominant and non-dominant hand.

You can think of opposites as being like enemies or antagonists in a drama. Each views the other skeptically, if not openly critically. Because your Insiders are charged with keeping you safe, they typically see their opposites as threats to that safety. For example, a Pusher Insider keeps you safe by getting you into action, so you can feel a sense of agency and control. Its opposite, Being, values presence, reflection and rest. The Pusher sees rest as dangerous, and will warn you not to slow down, because then you’ll fall behind and never catch up. Being, on the other hand, looks at Pusher, and wonders where he’s trying to get to in such a rush, when all the answers are right here, right now?

There’s often a feeling of competition and one-upmanship between opposite characters. Insiders feel superior to their Outsider opposites, believing their approach is right, good, virtuous and wise. For example, Perfectionist’s opposite is Messy. Perfectionist believes that to be good, you have to eliminate errors, create order and achieve flawless quality. Messy believes that to be good is to be spontaneous and free, and celebrates flaws as beautifully human and relatable. Each will fail to comprehend the others’ world. Perfectionist might look at Messy’s chaotic workspace and exclaim, “I don’t know how you can work here,” while Messy will look at Perfectionist’s orderly, neat environment and feel stifled by its rigidity.

The work of the Inner Leader is to find the both/and balance. It does this by recognizing the importance of both sides of these inner polarities, appreciating and including the perspectives of each. For Pusher and Being, this might look like taking action with presence rather than rushing through tasks; or taking breaks to rest to re-energize yourself for action. For Perfectionist and Messy, this might look like setting a standard of good enough, and relaxing into the “messy middle” of projects.

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