Enantiodromia – or, how to play on the see-saw all by yourself. This article examines a number of subjects including Carl Jung’s notion of enantiodromia, cognitive dissonance, with a little Rogerian incongruity thrown in for good measure. As always, let me know if it was useful to you – or not. I do enjoy hearing my many readers!
I use the term enantiodromia for the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. In the philosophy of Heraclitus it is used to designate the play of opposites in the course of events—the view that everything that exists turns into its opposite….
— C. G. Jung (1949)
In my practice as a therapist, I frequently refer to enantiodromia – as did one of my favorite professor s of all time, Dr. Christian Conte – when explaining the very human tendency to move from one extreme to its polar opposite.
It is a compound of two Greek words: enantios (which in Greek can mean “opposite”), and dramein (“to run” from the Greek dromas, for “running”). For example, in describing reactions to events, many of my clients will initially express anger, envy, or revulsion (certainly extremes) but quickly move, by dint of guilt perhaps or a sense of having overreacted, to shame and embarrassment at having had such thoughts (the other extreme). It is the emotional see-saw that can leave so many of us wrung-out.
What of this? Why is it a decidedly human response to our own thoughts? And what can be done about it?
In my view, this run to the opposite is a function of an overwrought sense of embarrassment at having taken such an extreme position. It is a function of shame arising from a profound psychic dissonance. Or, as Carl Rogers might have put it, an extreme sense of incongruity. We sense an imbalance and to correct that imbalance, as on a see-saw, we run to the other side.
Of course, this amounts to playing see-saw all by ourselves. We cannot, by the laws of nature, achieve a balance of both sides without first getting off the see-saw and gingerly manipulating the bar to some sort of equilibrium.
This is where therapy or the willing ear of a good friend comes in. The ability, if you will, to get off the see-saw and to raise or lower the bar to its balancing point.
Can it be done by ourselves? Yes, but it takes practice and an understanding of the so-called ten cognitive distortions (of which I have written about before in this blog). Further, it takes the truly human insight that “dissonance happens.” We are confronted every day by our view of events which can leave us depleted, tired, and hungry. As the great Greek philosopher and stoic Epictetus said …
“Men are not disturbed by things, but by their view of things.”
Take for instance the very real human tendency to compare oneself to others. It is perhaps, the number one source of cognitive dissonance (aside from graduate studies!). With the advent of social media it has become a source of depressive thinking, anxiety, and downright worthlessness. The fact is, of course, that you can always find someone better off than yourself – someone with more money, better looks (or, so you think), a better body, a bigger house, a better looking girl- or boy-friend … the list is endless.
We know nothing about what is “really” happening with other people (remembering here the maxim that there are only two kinds of people in the world, those with issues and the dead). We can, however, safely assume that they are doing precisely the same thing – comparing themselves to others – but in differing degrees. It is a human tendency.
So, the dissonance which results from the comparison – that “gap” between the ideal of the comparator and our present condition – devolves into the aforementioned feelings of worthlessness, depression, anxiety … you name it. The trick is to, first, acknowledge the gap in our thinking; that distance between what is real and what is ideal. Or, between that which is idealized and how I see myself.
It is important to recognize that there is always a gap, but the width is up to you. No two people are the same – therefore, there will be a gap between what you are and what they are. But it is the wild assumptions we make about people that contribute to the widening gaps and the dissonance which settles in that space.
Second, therefore, is the need to stop and dispute your assumptions. What do you really know about that other person? Probably not nearly as much as you think. And being pretty or handsome does not mean that they have the perfect life, worthy of your envy (not that anything is worthy of envy).
In fact, their lives may be every bit as miserable as you think yours is!
I want you also to dispute the assumptions you are making about yourself and the conclusion that “mine is a miserable life.” Oh yeah? Really? Tell you what, let’s fly down to Santiago, Chili, and as we land I will point out the slums at the north end of the runway. The acres of cardboard and tin shacks where running water happens only when it rains or as the snow melts. Or let’s run off to Dhaka, the Capital of Bangladesh, where a cardboard shack would be the equivalent of moving uptown!
No, your life is probably just fine.
Next step is to close the gap. And you do that by, (a) disputing your assumptions (See step 2), (b) imagining what life would be like were you not you as you are but as you would like to be, and (c), the means by which you would get there.
For example, I look at the guy who has just parked his gorgeous, new Mercedes next to my 10-year-old Ford truck, in our company’s parking lot. I begin imagining what a wonderful life he must have, his beautiful wife awaiting him at home, his well-adjusted children beavering away in the best schools, his solid career as a highly paid-something (I know not what), and an ever-appreciating trust fund just dripping with dividends and interest.
I have in one-fell-swoop created the Ideal, the Comparator. I have also, in so doing, depreciated my state of affairs. I referred to my truck, for example, as being ten years old, and therefore not new. And the difference between the Ideal, the Comparator, and me, will quickly fill with dissonance, like a mudslide.
Here is what I have learned with age:
- The Mercedes is overpriced and over-valued. It is without question a status symbol.
- It is usually not paid for and requires an investment every month just for insurance.
- It is quite possible that the guy is a Mercedes salesman and gets the car for free, while making a lot less than I do.
- His wife is far from beautiful and is in fact undeniably homely and caustic. The Mercedes is actually her’s and she ordered him to get the oil changed today.
- The children, one of whom is a delinquent and the other pregnant, wont make it out of high school.
- The trust fund is nonexistent; in fact, his in-laws, his wife’s mom and dad, are in a rest home and every extra dime goes toward the living expenses.
The list could go on. I have narrowed the gap. But what of my envy at having a shiny new Mercedes? This requires that I sit back and evaluate the many choices I’ve made in life, up to this point, and the many choices I am sure to have in the future. What am I prepared to do today and in the future to be able to buy that Mercedes? Am I ready to commit to those choices, to that path?
Given that the Mercedes Company is literally pushing their cars out the door, what with zero percent interest and all, I have no doubt that I could buy one. But what then? Will my life be any better? Will I have the financial freedom to do other things, or will I be constrained by a Mercedes payment for the foreseeable future? My questions are working to close the gap from the other side. Suddenly, given the choices I would have to make, the things I would have to give up, my little old, ten-year-old Ford truck doesn’t look so bad.
The nature of enantiodromia is this human tendency to rush toward that ideal, or to jump to conclusions (as Grandma used to say). Once there, however, and once we have worked to “close the gap,” we often bounce to the other extreme, one of self-recrimination and self-doubt. We actually get mad at ourselves for having been so silly.
Enantiodromia, in my view of the concept, is hard work and without any payoff whatsoever. It could be (and this is the case with so many of my clients) that the wild swings are of value, perversely so, and that they somehow work to keep oneself in balance.
Jung would say, “nonsense.” The emotional energy required for such swings is so significant that it creates a clinically significant fatigue. Jung recognized the value of the concept in explicating the workings of the psyche. It is not just some relic of ancient philosophy but a psychological law which is unfailingly valid in personal affairs. And a complete waste of time.
Extreme one-sided thinking builds up a tension in our psyche, for which the eventual and unavoidable “conversion” is a rush to the opposite pole. Jung sought to encourage in his patients the living of a balanced live—not falling into one-sidedness—and the inevitable result that we won’t have to experience the overwhelment and lack of control that an enantiodromic experience involves.
Ask yourself, “What am I getting from these ceaseless comparisons?” “Have I forgotten to count my many blessings?”
If you find yourself angry, or stuck, or somehow conceiving of yourself as worthless, stop for a moment and reflect on how you may be playing a one-person game of see-saw. Crawl off the see-saw.
Or, in the words of Bob Newhart, the therapist, “stop it!”