People who tend to see the world only in terms of extremes are more prone to severe depression, marital conflict, anxiety and host of other everyday problems. But when you learn to recognize the spectrum of gray in the difficult experiences you encounter in your life, you will be better equipped to come out on top.
~by Mark Sichel
Always" and "never," polar opposite words, tend to characterize the vocabulary of black and white thinkers. Black and white thinking means seeing the world only in terms of extremes.
If things aren't "perfect," then they must be "horrible." If your child isn't "brilliant" then he must be "stupid." If you're not "fascinating" then you must be "boring."
Yikes! What a tough way to live! In real-life, situations are almost always shades of gray, not black or white. Falling victim to black and white thinking tends to exacerbate depression, marital conflict, anxiety, and a host of other everyday problems. Give yourself and the ones you love a break and discover the beauty of shades of gray.
When small children are learning to use words and organize their thoughts, it is normal and expected for them to see and express their world in very black and white terms.
When a young child feels they are not loved, they feel they must be hated. When a child feels his or her parents don't pay enough attention to them, that child will say, "You never pay attention to me." Developmental psychologists call this primitive thinking.
When and adults starts relying on the terms 'always' and 'never', they are slipping back to the way they saw the world as a child
Unfortunately, under duress, adults often regress to primitive thinking. Adults are most prone to regressing to primitive thinking when they are having a hard time and feel overwhelmed by their own emotions.
A regression, in psychoanalytic parlance, is a backsliding from mature functioning and thinking to immature ways of functioning and thinking. For that one moment, when the adult starts relying on the words "always" or "never," and seeing the world in black and white terms, they are slipping back to the way they saw the world as a child.
Here are some examples of people who fell prey to black and white thinking. Listen to the language that they use to express themselves:
Charlotte's sense of hopelessness Charlotte*, a married woman in her forties with a young child, was suffering from what is called dysthymia, or mild depression.
She came into my office telling me that she never felt happy any more, that she always felt disappointed with her husband, and that she feared she would never feel good again as long as she lived. She said that she had nothing to look forward to anymore. She reported that she had always been a person who was not easily satisfied and that she only prayed that her daughter would not be like her.
As Charlotte realized that her extreme language was making her situation seem worse instead of better, she learned to correct her black and white thinking. Charlotte was able to get a better handle on the events that triggered her chronic reactions of depression.
Joseph's overwhelming anxiety Joseph*, an aspiring actor who supported himself as a carpenter, also had a problem with black and white thinking whenever he felt anxious. Despite favorable reviews in several plays and some success being cast in commercials, Joseph reported feeling overwhelming anxiety whenever he had to audition for a role.
He always prepared thoroughly for his auditions, and he always became uncontrollably anxious starting a week before the audition. He was never able to do a good job in the audition, he told me, and he felt he would never overcome his anxiety. He felt sure he would always have to support himself as a carpenter.
When Joseph realized that black and white thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, he made an effort to see his situation for what it was: a mix of the good and the not-so-good.
With his newfound appreciation for shades of gray, Joseph was much happier, less anxious and more successful in his career.
When you learn to recognize the spectrum of gray in the difficult experiences you encounter in your life, you will be better equipped to come out on top. Regression is not a foregone conclusion when you feel stressed, angry, overwhelmed, confused, or just plain fed up with another person.
You CAN start to recognize when you are giving-in to black and white thinking, and then make the choice to banish those extreme thoughts in favor of healthy living.
*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.
Mark Sichel, author of the best selling book, Healing From Family Rifts, has been a practicing psychotherapist, teacher, consultant, and speaker since 1980.
That is a wonderful post. As someone who has ocd i sometimes regress into seeing things as black and white all or nothing. i do not do it as much anymore. a friend of mine once said that having ocd was like learning how to live again. and she was right. when i first started dealing with the o i had to relearn how to live again. how to not see everything as black and white all or nothing. it was a hard lesson to learn but so worth it. i credit another friend of mine for helping me with that. he is a Buddhist and he began teaching me. at first i found him frustrating because his lessons involved answering my questions with even more difficult questions. but in doing so he taught me to see the world as it is. it is chaotic for a reason. and in time i learned to accept that i will have bad in my life along with good in my life. such is the nature of life. two of the best lessons he taught me was the nature of impermanance. everything is in a constant state of change and no one is the same as they were even 10 minutes ago. we are all changing. we are all growing. he also taught me the lesson of mindfulness. it took me a while to understand it. longer to implement it. i remember the first time i actually did implement it. i was very anxious. and in the midst of it i asked what am i doing now? what am i seeing now? what am i hearing now? what am i feeling now? and i stopped and saw, heard and felt. and it was awe inspiring. for a single moment i felt like i had experienced eternity. i stood in the middle of the yard with my mouth wide open in absolute awe. i have had many ocd episodes since that time. all of them painful. but i have learned so much. in the ocd group on this site i sometimes tell someone that i would not trade my experience for the world. and most of the time i get a pm from someone who is wondering why i would not wish to rid myself of the o. but as painful as the episodes are i have learned that even the ocd has a purpose. it has quite literally succeeded in ripping open the hidden recesses of my psyche and forced me to face it. I have been an unwilling philosopher and an unwilling einstein at times. and sometimes the pain has so horrible, the experience so horrifying that at times i have wondered if i would even have the strength to carry on. but it has been because of these experiences that i have learned the strength i do have. i have learned to appreciate the strength i see in others. i have learned compassion. i have learned more about me than i ever thought possible. i have learned to appreciate the moment. to appreciate life. because it can be fleeting at times. i have learned to see the good in people, even when they do not see it themselves. all of this i have learned because of my ocd. i have a sig on here that to me speaks volumes. my favorite part of the quote is in the midst of winter, i found, within me, an invincible summer. that describes me. and that describes every single person in the world. we all carry a light within us. that is our invincible summer. because no amount of darkness in the world can ever snuff out a single candle. A friend of mine has a different spectrum of ocd than i do. he has had it for 44 years and sometimes the episodes are as painful to him as the first. such is the nature of ocd. each episode is as painful as the first. i told him the other night that he was right. there is no escaping ocd. i have no false hopes that someday i will fully overcome this condition. that it will fully go away. i know i will die with it. i know it can be managed but never cured. but i also know that such is life. sometimes it takes something like anxiety, or ocd, or whatever in someones life for them to truly appreciate what they have and who they are. i honor every moment. i cherish every evening that i have where i can go outside and just stare at the moon. life will bring you lemons from time to time but sometimes in that lemon there is a seed of gold. that is what life is about. it is not about the destination. it is the journey. what we do along the way of our destination. when we see things in black or white, all or nothing we fail to see the sublime. we all get wrapped up in finding the next big thing that next shiny object that will make us happy and we sometimes fail to realize we already have everything we need to be happy. experiencing a single moment in time like it is an eternity...apple has nothing on that!
Don't let your anxieties and fears consume you. Don't leave YOU behind!
You don't have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you. - Dan Millman.
AS LONG AS YOU ARE BREATHING THERE IS MORE RIGHT WITH YOU THAN THERE IS WRONG.
Black and white thinking is when you believe something either has to be one thing or another; good or bad, right or wrong, all or nothing. There are three ways that black and white thinking can hamper our lives, these three things are: thinking in black and white robs us of a great chance for balance in our lives, people are gray- no one is either all good or all bad, and we lose in black and white thinking because we are never going to be everything we want to be. Three ways to get away from black and white thinking are: accepting that you're not perfect, the next time you feel judgmental stop and ask yourself why, and try and find the gray in one situation today.
You know the old thing about the glass being half empty or half full. I think this is important not just because it indicates whether you're an optimist or pessimist (I'm an optimist, by this standard or any other), but because it indicates that you think the glass is either one or the other.
Many people have what I call a bad case of black-and-white-itis. I'm prone to this myself sometimes. I look at something and think it must be good or bad, right or wrong, or all or nothing.
I've been an all-or-nothing person all of my life. When I start a business, I absolutely throw myself into it and have to watch my balance before I'm spending all my waking hours working. When I plan a vacation, I'm tempted to make it the end-all, be-all trip. When I work on my personal development, I often have twenty books waiting to be read or none at all.
I think, however, that there are three ways in which this black and white thinking can really harm us, in the long run.
1. Thinking in black and white robs us of a great chance for balance in our lives, because we tend to think that we have to do all of a particular project right now, for instance, or none of it. Along these same lines, if we feel we can't take the whole day off to take our kids on a day trip, we have to skip the trip. We may not stop to think of something that would only take a couple of hours. We think we have to do everything or nothing at all, and quite often that results in our doing nothing, because we're so intent on everything being perfect.
2. People are gray. No one is all good or all bad. No one is completely likeable or (usually) completely unlikable. No one is always going to be exactly what we expect or want. We can lose a lot of good opportunities for relationships by insisting on thinking in black and white. We gain so much by realizing that each person is unique and has specific things to bring to the table in a relationship, and then allowing that person to bring those things but also bring the rest of themselves, as well.
3. We lose in black and white thinking because we are never going to be everything we want to be. We're always going to be lacking something if we're trying to measure ourselves on some black-and-white scale where x is good and y is not good. We're never going to be able to be completely x. It doesn't happen, because we're human – we're unfinished – and we're not simple.
In fact, very few things are simple, and the more we try to simplify our thinking into this/that, black/white, good/bad, the worse we're going to make our lives, because life just isn't like that. We're not like that, no one is like that, and no one ever will be.
So is the glass half full or half empty? It's probably actually a little less than half in one direction and a little more than half in the other.
3 Ways to get away from black and white thinking today:
1. Accept that you're not perfect. You're human – you make mistakes, you're fallible, you're imperfect, and you're vulnerable. Believing that we can achieve what's not achievable – perfection - helps us to accept that we're unfinished. We may be accomplished, brilliant, and unique, but we'll never arrive at the destination we're trying to reach when the standard we've set for ourselves is perfection.
2. The next time you feel judgmental, stop and ask why. Is it because you're expecting too much of others? Maybe your expectations of your own perfection are being placed on others. Aren't other people entitled to be just as human as you are?
3. Try to find the gray in one situation today. Things can be both good and bad, and people can be both capable and incomplete, self-confident and self-effacing, talented and average, and extraordinary and no more special than anyone else. Take the time to realize that we're all in this together as humans.
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