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The Ambiance of Difference

Monday, October 10th, 2022

by Douglas L. Anderson, PsyD


We live in a time where difference has become a threat.  That’s not a new problem, but it does seem to be an increasing problem.  

Differences are, of course, manifold.  Different cultural backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds.  Different political parties and opinions.  Different occupations, personalities, incomes, spiritualities and beliefs.  Different sexual orientations and different genders.  Loyalties to different sports teams.  Diversity is the norm in this world, but it seems diversity gets experienced as threatening to many, maybe most, people.

If you come from a Christian tradition you may recall the Tower of Babel story.  In that story God confuses the singular language of people so that they could then only communicate with those who spoke the same language, and then God scatters them across the world.  One take away from this story for me is that the Creator actually preferred diversity.  

Why is it then that we humans seem so easily threatened by diversity or difference?  It has a lot to do with our sense of security, and similarity unfortunately translates to security for many.  If you think like me, act like me, believe like me, share my political views, then I can feel safe around you.  In this scenario, difference is experienced as unsafe.

But safe from what?  Most would likely say it keeps them safe from fear and anxiety - the fear and anxiety of being wrong, of believing wrong, of voting wrong, and so on.  

The security of similarity is actually a false security, and really no security at all.  All it really does is exaggerate our fear of difference.  This false security built on fear then contributes to anxiety and depression.  It also contributes to increased irritability and anger.  Anger directed at the thing or person that is different is a defensive way to avoid the underlying sense of fear and insecurity.  

Said slightly differently, the threat of difference in the service of supposed security actually leads to increased insecurity and anger.  This increases our sense that difference is threatening, causing us to hunker down with those who are like us, and difference becomes even more threatening.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Our psychological and relationship health will likely improve when we learn to appreciate the ambiance of difference.  Difference does not need to be threatening.  In fact, difference makes life interesting and richer.  When we give up the need for our security to be based on similarity, then we begin to experience the world and ourselves as more alive, more engaged in discovery, and life becomes more meaningful.

If you find yourself living in fear and feeling insecure, then maybe you have fallen into the trap of difference as threat.  If you want to live more fully, experience greater levels of meaning, and develop a greater appreciation for others, then risk leaning into the ambiance of difference.  

If you need a little help finding your way to the experience of difference as enlivening and meaningful, give us a call.  We have competent and caring therapists in all four of our locations - River Counseling Services in Platte, Sioux Falls Psychological Services, and Stronghold Counseling Services in Sioux Falls and in Yankton - who will meet you where you are, offering hope. That is our mission. You may schedule an appointment at the Platte office at 605-337-3444 or meet with one of our Sioux Falls or Yankton-based therapists from your computer, smartphone, or in person at any of our clinics. To schedule an appointment, please call 605-334-2696.