Building Walls, Accepting Difference

Group of shells

This week I have been saddened by the news coming from the Macedonia-Greek border. More than 300 refugees, including quite a few pregnant women and children, were injured by teargas, stun grenades, and plastic bullets in their attempt to cross the border. After surviving war bombs and sea crossings in dingy boats, more than 10,000 people have been stranded at this border since its shutdown in February. Understandably, they feel frustrated and their hope is slowly seeping away.

Closer to home, in a blog a few months ago, I talked about this photo of a spray-painted “Refugees Welcome” sign a few blocks from where I live. Since then, the “Welcome” has been crossed out.

Gronau Not Welcome

Why do we build walls?

Psychologically we build walls when we are unable to cope with difference. Difference implies a polarity – black and white, insider and outsider, you and me. Any polarity, by definition, implies two items that are extremely different to the point of being opposite. How well we balance opposites is fundamental to our subjective experience of difference.

As I have written before, balancing polar energies is, in fact, essential in psychosynthesis. Internally, we are often trying to balance conflicting subpersonalities who can appear as polar opposites – for example, subpersonality Mr. Freeze fears engaging with new people, while The Comic longs for attention. By learning to harmonize inner polarities, we are then able to engage in more effective outer relationships that involve difference. Assagioli (1972) states that:

Psychological life [is] a continual polarization and tension between differing tendencies and functions, and a continual effort…to establish equilibrium (p. 48).

He illustrates this process with triangular diagrams that show how synthesis is brought about by a higher principle which “transforms, sublimates and reabsorbs the two poles into a higher reality” (ibid., p. 47).

Polar Opposites Modesty

This diagram of Assagioli’s shows one such polarity that relates to our building of walls. On the right side, we might remain staunchly separate from the other, as expressed through feelings of superiority and arrogance. On the left side, we find ourselves feeling inferior for being different. Our task is to balance our feelings of superiority and inferiority to the point where we can modestly and realistically understand our true self worth.

Assagioli insists that polar opposites, including such feelings of superiority and inferiority, need to be brought into balance and transformed into “a legitimate field of action of each of the two functions, so that neither dominates the other.” The essential requirements for synthesis of opposite poles are an “increasing interpenetration between the two,…to avoid identifying oneself with either of the two opposite poles, and to control, transmute, and direct the polar energies from a higher center of awareness and power” (2003, pp. 49-50). Ultimately, the polarity is transformed into  “a higher unity endowed with the qualities which transcend those of either” (Assagioli, 2002, p. 101)

The experience of difference

This balancing of polar opposites relates closely to Bennett’s (1986) developmental model for training intercultural sensitivity. Bennett developed his model based upon the key organizing concept of difference. He states that “cultures differ fundamentally in the way they create and maintain world views,” and that “intercultural sensitivity is not ‘natural’ to any single culture…This ability demands new awareness and attitudes” (ibid., p. 181).

BennettBennett describes six stages of how one experiences difference: Denial, Defense, Minimalization, Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration. Bennett’s six stages, in fact, closely align to the stages of synthesizing a subpersonality—Recognize (as oppose to Deny), Accept, Coordinate, Integrate, and Synthesize. I have added Synthesis to Bennett’s model to reflect this.

Denial occurs when you deny that there is any difference between you and another. For example, by saying: “Beijing is not any different from New York; they both have a lot of noise and traffic.” You negate the very real differences between the two, and therefore prevent yourself from having to deal with these differences.

Defense is something that we are certainly familiar with – just follow US presidential campaign, but Minimalization is more difficult to recognize. This occurs when we minimalize the differences between us by saying things like: “In other cultures, you just have to be yourself.” Or “We are all the same human beings.” The fact remains that, while we are all human beings, we also each have a world view, and not all these world views are the same!

Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration are fairly well-understood, but what is important to note is that Bennett says this jump from ethnocentric thinking to ethnorelative thinking requires a paradigm shift.

The question to ask is this: How do you experience difference? Not just with others who might be different from you, but also when confronted by the differences within yourself. Go gently, slowly and sincerely when probing this question.

Once recognizing and becoming aware of your attitude towards difference, then observe what happens when you do experience difference during the day. Start to balance the polar opposites you encounter. Play with these opposites, and trust that, in doing so, you are always moving towards full and joyful empathy for yourself and others.


Assagioli, Roberto, (1972). “The Balancing and Synthesis of Opposites.” Psychosynthesis Research Foundation. Reprinted in Fundamentals of Psychosynthesis, Institute of Psychosynthesis, Vol. I, London, 2003, pp. 45-49.

Assagioli, Roberto (2002). The Act of Will. London: The Psychosynthesis & Education Trust.

Assagioli, Roberto (2003). L’equilibramento e la sintesi degil opposti. Firenze: Istituto di Psicosintesi.

Bennett, Milton J. (1986). “A Developmental Approach to Training for Intercultural Sensitivity.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 10, pp. 170-186.

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