How to Know Yourself Better Through the Contrasts in Life

Bill Abbate

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Contrasts in life can teach us a great deal. From the time we are born, they begin to shape us. As a baby goes from hunger to satiated, awake to asleep, satisfied to dissatisfied, happy to sad, so we go throughout our lives.

As adults, we go from hunger to satiated, but more than about food. We go from awake to asleep, but more than in the biological sense. We go from satisfied to dissatisfied, but more than in basic needs. And we go from happiness to sadness in far deeper ways. These contrasts shape us as adults, just as they shaped us as a child. The only difference is they are far broader in their impact as we age.

Contrasts provide much learning about where the boundaries in life exist and when and where they might be crossed. They help us learn what we should or shouldn't do, what we can and can't do, and what we will and won't do. Contrasts help us thrive or fail, and deal with life and death, not only in the physical but also in the metaphorical.

Each life is so complex. Were it not for contrasts, life would be boring, to say the least. How would we know right from wrong, good from bad, rich from poor, beauty from unattractiveness, and a million other things?

"By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration but our reconsideration." Amor Towles (1964-present)

Yes, all of these things shape our lives. Yet, we maintain a great deal of control over many of them. We can cross the boundaries when it makes sense for us to do so. The only thing stopping us is us.

What can a person do?

In all of these contrasts in life, where is your focus? Is it on the dark or negative side, or the bright and positive side? Let's look at some important life contrasts to see where we fall. As you go through the following list of contrasts, ask yourself where you are on a scale of 1 to 10 from extreme left (1) to extreme right (10) on each set. Better yet, print the list and write a number next to each on paper. Be honest with yourself as no one else has to see or know about this unless you want them to know. The main thing is to be as authentic as you can with each rating.

  • Won't do vs. will do
  • Can't do vs. can do
  • Impossible vs. possible
  • Failure vs. success
  • Loneliness vs. companionship
  • Conflict vs. peace
  • Bad vs. good
  • Poor vs. wealthy
  • Unhealthy vs. healthy
  • Hate vs. love
  • Sadness vs. happiness
  • Misery vs. joy
  • Unattractiveness vs. beauty
  • Non-spiritual vs. spiritual

What other contrasts can you add to this list?

After rating where you are on each set, ask yourself the following questions:

  • "On which sets would I like to grow to a higher number on the right item?"
  • "Which one set/contrast would provide me with the greatest opportunity for growth?"
  • "Which set/contrast will I commit to working on today?"
  • "How can I keep this list in front of me as a reminder of the work I wish to continue on myself?"
  • "What date do I want to add to my calendar for my next check-in on the list?"

Whenever I have asked a client to do this exercise, it always produces eye-opening results for them. I continue to check in on myself after years as I always find room for additional improvement.

If you want to make the exercise especially impactful, do it with someone you trust and discuss each item and number with them. You will be amazed at how much you can learn about yourself if you do it alone and about each other if you do it with another.

Final thoughts

Why go through this thought exercise about contrasts? To get to know yourself better and to provide you with areas you can work to improve. Remember the brutally honest words of Socrates – "The unexamined life is not worth living!"

In the end, life is about one thing – you and those for whom you care. I recall so well when my first wife was on her deathbed. Nothing mattered in the world to her, to me, or my daughter but one another. Literally, nothing else mattered. That is how it will be for all of us one day, but until then, heed these words of a famous American author and historian:

"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do." Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909)

You are one, and you can make a difference in life not only to yourself but to those about which you care. That is what life is all about in the end. That is what makes life worth living!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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