In case you haven’t noticed, my recent blog posts have been centered around limiting beliefs, which are sometimes called cognitive distortions. In his book “The Feeling Good Handbook” David Burns classifies our cognitive distortions into 10 categories. Over the coming weeks, my goal is to help you understand (and hopefully avoid!) each category in via a series of blog posts. Today we will look at the cognitive distortion known as black and white or all or nothing thinking.
As you have probably guessed, this particular distortion causes us to see things as either black or white. The problem with this is that much of our life is lived in the gray area between black and white. This is where perfectionist thinking can pretty much cripple you. If it has to be perfect to be useful, then most projects, people, television shows, or just about anything else you can think of will fall short of perfect and, therefore, end up in the useless category.
There are some benefits to black and white thinking. Things become predictable and even safe. If you are a rule follower, you love black and white thinking because there is only one right way to do something. There aren’t as many decisions to make, and you can lump everybody into either good or bad categories. You don’t have to agonize over the ambiguity. There is none. It is either black or white, good or bad, always or never, hot or cold, fast or slow, dirty or clean…you get the picture. Life just got a lot simpler! Not many decisions to make…or so it may seem.
The truth is, however, that we limit ourselves with these extremes.
If people are good or bad, where do you think you would fall? If movies are either the best or the worst, how many would you really enjoy? If food must be either hot or cold, how much would you enjoy your dinner tonight? How many outfits would you have to try on before work tomorrow if your clothing was either right or wrong? The “simplicity” that comes with black and white thinking can easily turn into a prison cell. Instead of freeing you from making the wrong decision, it keeps you from making any decision at all.
Think of how much more interesting the world is because of the various shades of color. Take green, for example. There is sage, emerald, olive, lime, and mint. Or yellow, which shows up as canary, lemon, gold, butterscotch, or mustard. Blue can be slate, cobalt, teal, azure, navy, or sapphire. If we stay stuck in our all or nothing, black or white thinking we miss out on all of the various shades of life.
Because of the sense of safety that the black and white thinking lures us into believing we have, it’s sometimes hard to break out of. But it’s definitely not impossible! Here are a few things you might want to try.
- Practice allowing yourself to make mistakes. When you make a mistake, own it and realize that it doesn’t say anything about you. It doesn’t say you are good or bad, smart or stupid, right or wrong. It’s just a mistake. That’s all. Nothing else. Learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward.
- Give up trying to control the outcome of things. You can’t anyway, so you might as well relax about it right? Realize that your lack of control doesn’t mean it will get out of control. All outcomes have positives and negatives. Learn to embrace both.
- Check the validity of your assumptions. When you catch yourself using all or nothing words like best or worst, smart or stupid, right or wrong, stop and ask yourself if that’s true. Is it true that it’s the best movie ever? Is it true that since your boss made a correction in your work that you are stupid? Is it true that there is only one right way to do anything? Just start noticing how many times you use these kinds of words.
- Open your mind to the fine nuances of the in between. Notice the subtle difference between buttercup yellow and mustard yellow. Can you appreciate both? Can you see the benefit of allowing both into your awareness. How does it feel to embrace both? In time, you can shift this “palette appreciation” technique to other areas of your life.
Be gentle with yourself. You most likely became a black and white thinker as a self-defense mechanism. It made the world seem safer. It will take some practice to let go of it and it probably won’t feel quite right at first. Just take your time. It will happen! Keep doing the work and before you know it a whole new world of possibilities will open up to you. It really is a nicer place when we live life in the gray area!