Opposites Define

Quick Summary: The opposite of not enough is enough, rather than too much. How we pair ideas shapes how we view them, and sometimes this hinders our understanding of the world.

Opposites, extremes, and polar thinking are often used as frameworks through which we view the world. The opposite of hot is cold, and the opposite of dark is light. Yet this pairing, while often helpful, can lead us astray. We often uncritically assume one thing is the opposite of another when this is not true. This false dichotomy then shapes our thinking in unhelpful ways and can lead us astray.

For example, the idea of not enough often stems from a sense of scarcity, whether it’s related to material possessions, time, achievements, or emotional fulfillment. This scarcity mindset can lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and a constant striving for more. If not enough is a deficit of what we need, then abundance, too much, or more than enough must be the opposite, right? If we feel lousy when we are in a state of not enough, it makes sense that we would seek the opposite, that we would chase too much.

And yet, too much is no more the road to happiness than not enough. Too much leaves us feeling bloated, trapped in excess, and unhappy. If not enough is the state we are escaping, it makes sense that we would move toward the opposite. And the logical opposite of not enough is… too much. The irony is that if we define the opposite of not enough as abundance (or some version of this idea), the question naturally that follows is,How much abundance is enough? How much do we need until we have reached the state of too much? This is possibly a bottomless hole, leading us back to a state of never enough.

Perhaps the more useful opposite of not enough is simply…enoughEnough has a logical endpoint. Perhaps enough embodies a sense of contentment and satisfaction with what is present and attainable. It suggests that one’s current state and resources are sufficient for a fulfilling life.

The practice of mindfulness helps us recognize these patterns and shift our focus to the present moment. Embracing the idea of enough helps us to find joy and fulfillment in the present rather than constantly seeking more to fill an imagined void.

By embracing enough as the opposite of not enough we promote a healthier relationship with ourselves and the world around us. This encourages gratitude for what we have and aligns with the values of balance, contentment, and mindfulness that are central to living a happier and healthier life.

What are other examples of opposites that are perhaps not helpfully paired? Ellie Wiesel wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

We often think of strength and weakness as opposites, but perhaps the opposite of strength is not weakness but something else. Is the opposite of strength actually infirmity? Or insecurity? Or to take another example, is pairing success and failure helpful? After all, some of our greatest learning comes from our failures. Maybe the opposite of success is not failure, but stagnation, or apathy.

To take another common example, I often have conversations with patients about selfish vs. selfless. Selfish is interested primarily in oneself (and not a good thing), and gives little attention to the needs of others. Selfless, on the other hand, is viewed as taking care of others, and is synonymous with generosity.

The challenge that arises from this framing is that caring for yourself does not imply a disregard for others. Exercising in the morning, meditating, or going to a recovery meeting are all self-focused, but none of these equate to a disregard for others. In fact, the opposite is true– we can best practice compassion towards others if can also practice compassion for ourselves. If selfish and selfless are opposites, then anything that is inwardly focused almost by definition implies a lack of caring for others– and that is neither true nor helpful. The opposite of selfish is perhaps compassion, love, or concern. Perhaps the opposite of selfless is greedy, mean, or disinterested.

How we pair opposites shapes our view of the world; sometimes, this is enlightening, and sometimes it impairs our understanding. When we find something we do not like, we naturally gravitate towards the opposite of it, whatever that is. And while moving away from unhelpful ideas is useful, we need to take care that we are moving toward is in fact the opposite of that which we despise.


-Dr. Justin