Navigating hypocrisy and negativity: a strategy for (young) adults

Young adults are witnessing a lot of hypocrisy right now. And their moral purity is leaving them in a state of dissonance, disgusted with what they see and driven to take a stand.

While I certainly understand their frustration, I wish they had tools to navigate these treacherous waters, allowing them to preserve their sense of integrity but also the relationships that will continue to mean so much.

What can you do when adults are behaving in ways that seem so obviously wrong? Ways that go against your core beliefs and contradict what you know to be absolutely and unequivocally true?

For many (young) adults, these situations can feel untenable, like there is no hope for a solution or a reprieve. How can you co-exist or have a real relationship with someone whose values directly conflict with your own? Especially when that person demands respect and will not tolerate what they see as insubordination, and you see as defending your principles.

This dilemma can threaten to end the very relationships that serve as the fabric of our families and communities.

When I was just starting my career, I sought training as a divorce mediator. I was actually interested in conflict resolution, not divorce, but that was the only training program available at the time.  

The model for divorce mediation struck me as powerful- so powerful that I continue to practice many of its core strategies. In divorce mediation, the couple is committed to ending the marriage, and their sense of acrimony and mutual contempt are often so strong that they need help completing the process.

The primary task of the mediator is to clarify some shared goal or understanding, and then use that point of connection to move through the process and related goals. The only thing strong enough to cut through the anger and hurt and bring the couple together in making decisions is their shared love for their children. The mediator holds this up, continually reminding them of their shared purpose in order to create space for moving forward.

The combination of affirming love/or something positive and then creating space works beautifully in many situations.

As disagreements about politics seem to spiral out of control, we can acknowledge, “I know we both love our country and are scared for its future. Although we see the problems and solutions differently, we both want what we think is best.”

Or if you are being treated unfairly by your parents and feel like the conditions are becoming unbearable, you can affirm, “I know things have gotten pretty bad around here. We all love each other and I appreciate what you do for me and our family.”

These statements or acknowledgements are by no means magical- they do not in and of themselves transform a situation or make things inherently better.

But they do create space – if only temporarily- and they can release the stress and negative emotions that come with direct and dangerous conflict. They can break the spiral of anger and hurt and allow something positive and healing to take root. What you do with that space has the ability to make a profound and lasting difference.

I think of this process as resetting, and I use it all the time. Even the best and strongest relationships can take a sudden turn, becoming dangerously contentious, sending us reeling and feeling like we are up against a wall.

For this technique to work, however, you need to offer the affirmation in the spirit of vulnerability and hope. And the greater and more dangerous the conflict, the more compelling the truth must be. Simply acknowledging that you see the world differently or that you will have to agree to disagree is not strong enough to create sufficient space for forward movement.  

Instead, you have to allow yourself the vulnerability of envisioning what the relationship could be, not just for you, but for the collective we, accommodating all the different needs and perspectives and experiences. If we can find a way to articulate this desire so it is resonant and true, not just for us, but for everyone, we can create some space for healing, and begin to enjoy the sense of security in knowing that despite the challenges, we will all be ok.

Gnawing Around the Edges


This is my daughter’s gerbil. He has a habit of chewing on his food bowl. He simply cannot help himself.  He goes on nibbling and destroying until we finally replace the dish, and then he begins anew.

You’ll have to excuse the absurdity of the metaphor- but in some ways we are like this gerbil. We can’t help gnawing at the edges, slowly destroying our institutions and their leaders until they almost collapse, and then we start anew.  And like the gerbil, we simply cannot help ourselves.

I know this might seem ridiculous, but these are the things that I think about. An observation or idea reveals itself and then continues to emerge in various  situations until I finally acknowledge its form . So please bear with me as I try to make the connections.

Although we function at a higher cognitive level than rodents, we too are “wired” with certain tendencies that help us to survive. One such tendency that seems to be innate is our focus on major categorical boundaries or edges. These are the major differences that we perceive as such- blue vs. green; Democrat vs. Republican; good vs. bad, virtually any category that we can comfortably agree differs from the closest alternative. We’re really good at differentiating these high contrast boundaries, and we (naturally) enjoy doing what we’re (naturally) good at.

In this way it’s not surprising that we invest so much time- our own and others’- in debates about categorical differences, and also why we hold on so tenaciously to our own experiences and perceptions. The differences appear to be so strong and obvious that we feel compelled to fight for them. This notion of categorical perception lies at the very heart of polarization. 

This tendency can be seen in a myriad of ways and extends well beyond individual people (or gerbils) to involve institutions and systems that together accelerate the undoing of our proverbial food dishes.

What is the alternative? -you might ask, especially if this tendency to gnaw around the edges is in some ways innate or pre-wired. Well, although our attention naturally gravitates to the edges- the boundaries that divide us, there lies a wealth of fertile common ground in the spaces between. 

If you think of categories or labels as spectra, there are infinite opportunities for consensus and agreement before we hit the categorical cliff. Although it may take some self-control and discipline to avoid the edges, this is where progress can most easily occur.

One would hope that unlike gerbils we could control our pre-wired tendencies, especially in areas that are fundamental to our continued viability.  Interestingly according to my six year old, once gerbils destroy their food dish, they will start gnawing on their cages, slowly destroying their own homes and means of security.

So while we are obviously superior to gerbils and rodents, perhaps we should take a moment of introspection and self-control and consider, for once, trying to stay within the edges.


*Please note that no gerbils were harmed during this photo shoot. On the contrary both Pip and Zip (I have no idea which one this is) greatly enjoyed the experience.