Walking with a special word (whether I choose it or it chooses me) gives me a guiding virtue and helps me stay focused on the ways I want to show up in the world. One word I always keep close is a mundane, utilitarian conjunction that keeps me out of the illusion of limitations, helps me transcend the trap of duality and opts me out of polarity’s tug-of-war.
I love the little word “and.”
These three simple letters strung together are a superpower. Liberation from polarity, poor choices and victimhood is found in the word “and.” This little word eliminates helplessness, expands your mind and opens the heart. It connotes endless possibility, which sparks creativity and fuels innovation. It’s the quickest possible fix to the stickiest of dilemmas, providing instant reframes and fast relief from judgment and suffering.
“And” can be represented by a singular symbol—an ampersand, a plus sign. Yet like a single cell, it can grow into something large, complex and beautiful. This word is much more than adding one thing to another. “And” doesn’t just acknowledge two or more different sides, it instantly elevates thinking. It allows me to see beyond the tree into the forest, the mountains, the sky and the universe. “And” helps me transcend the pain inherent in duality; it gives permission to acknowledge paradox and plot twists. It shows me the way to do hard things.
Wow. Who wouldn’t want to keep this singular, supercharged word at the ready?
Many things can be true at the same time
Understanding the multiple ways that seemingly contradictory things can be true at once is one of the keys to contentment. Using “and” is a way to remove the self-imposed blinders of a narrowed view. If you can sit with this concept, really meditate on it, you’ll find rapid access to compassion and develop a higher tolerance for the world’s messiness.
The mind, which evolved to emphasize survival, tends to default to an “either/or” perspective, which shuts down possibilities and limits the fullness of life. Yet we choose this perspective again and again. Why? Because the ego loves safety and certainty and chooses those qualities over accuracy—and definitely over complexity.
The primitive “either/or” solution to cognitive dissonance is an obstacle to connecting, meaning and wholehearted living—the very things we crave. To live fully in the mess, we need to become skilled at paradoxical thinking and develop the ability to hold space for multiple things to be true at the same time. We need to learn to get comfortable with the uneasiness caused by cognitive dissonance, which appeals to our survival instinct and puts the ego on red alert. With practice, we can thwart the ego’s goal to feel better by overriding the “either/or” thinking habit.
Trying to force this beautiful, complex world into the prison of a two-dimensional, diametric space will inevitably lead to long-term suffering. When we evolve to live with the discomfort cognitive dissonance can create, infinite possibilities appear. That’s why I love “and.” It helps relieve the stress of cognitive dissonance and allows for a richer experience.
Open hearts and minds
Another way we get boxed in is by insisting on simplicity when it comes to emotion. “And” gives us permission to “feel all our feels,” with a nod to the web of complex and seemingly contradictory emotions we often experience at the same time. All are worth honoring.
In the last year or so, I’ve been starting meetings and conversations with folks by asking them to name two things they’re feeling in the moment. The expansiveness of the answers I hear has been illuminating. I hear things like, “I’m feeling anxious about the future and also excited about what’s possible.” This allowance for experiencing and embracing many emotions at the same time makes space for creativity and signals an openness to new ideas. When people open their hearts, their minds often expand as well.
The ability to integrate many emotions at the same time opens you up to a multidimensional life where your whole reality isn’t defined by a single feeling. When you realize that emotions come rapidly and eventually ebb, you don’t have to be afraid to feel them in the moment.
It’s a trap to think we can only feel one emotion at a time, and it can lead to faulty decisions. If I miss my former husband, does that mean I made a mistake in leaving? If I’m feeling joy and relief in the wake of a painful divorce, does it mean that I didn’t love him? Of course not. I can miss him, love him AND recognize it was the right decision for me to leave. Feelings aren’t right or wrong. They’re just… feelings. Catch them and release them. It’s not only okay to have many different feelings, it’s absolutely natural. It’s human. “And” helps you recognize that.
“And” fosters self-acceptance
The word “and” is also useful for depersonalizing feedback. Just because someone has given you data about how you’re perceived in the world doesn’t mean it has to define who you are. Humans are complex, multifaceted beings—sometimes we’re kind, and sometimes we’re cruel. You can be great at money management and also capable of careless spending. You can be a loving parent and find yourself snapping at the kids.
By remembering that feedback doesn’t define who you are, it’s easier to scale back on defensiveness. Maybe you can make space for the possibility that the data you’ve been given is real, residing among your virtues and your shadows. Relating to information in this way can increase self-compassion and acceptance.
When you’re feeling on the ropes, try swapping “but” with “and.” Feel the shift.
- I messed up,
butand I can try to make it up.
- I am disappointed about your choice,
butand I love you.
- I understand your point,
butand I have a different perspective than you do.
- I am doing my best,
butand I can try harder.
“And” is a way to create a fuller, more authentic view of ourselves and others. It becomes less necessary to strive to be more kind—you become more kind. Using “and” can instantly open your heart to compassion and help you to see people in a new light. Next time you find yourself irritated with someone, or assigning them a label, try on the word “and.” It immediately widens your perspective.
Create safety while calling others to greatness
The word “and” can help people talk about tough topics and ultimately do hard things together. It’s one of the ways I have learned to create safety for others while calling them up to greatness. “And” helps you stay in a relationship with someone as you co-create a better future. It makes room for the human condition of growing and evolving and yes, even regressing at times.
“And” is a way to reassure and request something different. Its use keeps compassion as a foundation in conversations that call out behavior that might be undesirable or in need of changing without calling into question that someone is human and loveable.
Expanding your thinking
If a dilemma is viewed in polarity or mutual exclusivity, innovation is killed, scarcity is invoked and hope for inventive solutions is lost. Which side are you on? Which camp are you in?
Who decided the world was divided into two camps? I believe in one camp—the human camp. I want to be on the side that takes into account everyone on the planet. The world is abundant. The ego would like you to think otherwise, and it shows up big and bold in challenging times that require problem solving.
Sometimes in meetings with my staff, I respond to a seemingly tough choice between two unpreferred options with the question, “Where’s the ‘and’ here?”
“And” also can be an antidote to something I call “bundling.” To preemptively build a case for the status quo, my ego bundles my support of an idea with the burden of having to do all the work to make it successful.
“And” to the rescue. I combine “yes” plus “and,” which opens me to possibilities without feeling like I have to take them all on. We can dream together expansively without the worry that it will be my responsibility to make your dream come true.
In today’s world, my superpower word has never been more important. “And” is code for “I am pretty sure I don’t know everything.” I might not be able to have it all, but I can embrace everything as true and possible. Cognitive dissonance doesn’t have to shrink the possibilities. It can usher in a greater tolerance for living in the mess.
Knowing and accepting that many things are true at the same time makes living in the mess a lot more peaceful. If you allow “and” to roll up its sleeves and get to work, this sweet little word will usher in an evolved and expansive perspective of the world.
This excerpt of Life’s Messy, Live Happy was reprinted with permission. Photo by @danielacuevascastillo/Twenty20
Cy Wakeman is a national keynote speaker, business consultant, New York Times best-selling author, blogger and trainer who has spent over 20 years cultivating a revolutionary, reality-based approach to leadership. For more on Cy, check out RealityBasedLeadership.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.