Today I’m talking briefly about a very common cognitive distortion that can make life for you, and the people around you hard to deal with. This is Black and White thinking, also known as Absolute thinking, All or Nothing Thinking, or dichotomous thinking.
When you engage in Black and White thinking, you approach things from an extreme point of view. Either something is all good or all bad. A person either’s got your back, or you can’t count on them. A situation is either totally awesome or totally screwed. And another person’s perspective or point of view is either completely in alignment with yours, or you are in total disagreement.
There is no in-between. No grey area. And that’s an unfortunate way to approach life because it creates barriers between you and the world around you by shutting out the possibilities of connection and growth that lie in the grey areas. But more about that later. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Suppose you’re a real estate agent and you’re paired with a co-worker to stage, market, and sell a house. You want to stage the house in a contemporary Italian chic, and your co-worker wants Japanese Wabi Sabi. You want to market on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and she wants to go old school with direct mailings. You want to do an open house this Sunday to get traction, and she wants to hold off until the following weekend to generate a buzz. Can’t work with her, right? You’re total opposites and you have absolutely nothing in common.
Let’s imagine it’s your job to plan an event. Say, for your church, your class, or maybe your work group at your job. You’re organizing a venue, food, games, and activities. And let’s say the day comes, and the caterer forgets the macaroni salad. And the beans bags for the bean bag toss sprung a leak and now all you have is limp, polka dot rags. Holy frijoles, right? Total disaster.
Or let’s say you’re on a diet, which your doctor recommended because you are pre-diabetic. You’re doing your best to eat brown rice, cauliflower crusted pizza, seltzer water, and black coffee, and it’s going okay for 2 weeks. But at auntie Gertrude’s 80th birthday you cave and eat a slice of tiramisu. That diet is shot, and you might as well throw in the towel and bust out the insulin.
Finally, suppose you’re a cellist in an orchestra that contains three different sections. You’re in section 2, the “Tier 2” level of skill. Despite your dedication and practice, you have not gotten promoted to Tier 1. Well you must suck at the cello right? What’s the point of playing in the orchestra if you’re not good enough to be in Tier 1.
You can see how these examples of Black and White thinking might cause someone problems. It could cause them to be miserable with themselves, miserable with others, and to give up something doesn’t fall 100% on the end of the spectrum of acceptability. When I work with patients on Black and White thinking, I try and help them see that they are only causing themselves tremendous grief by expecting things to be exactly the way they want or totally dismissing them. I try and help them acknowledge the value of the Grey Zone.
So back to the realtor example. You have some very different ideas about selling this house. Are you really complete opposites? Maybe you both liked way the yard was configured. Maybe you both agreed to leave a signature and comment book in the hallway nook, and to have fruit and bottled water for the customers. And most importantly, maybe both of you REALLY want to sell this house. That’s something you’ve got in common, right? The fact is, you may disagree on SOME things, but it wouldn’t be arcuate to say you disagree on everything and that you’re opposite in EVERY way. And even in the ways that you disagree, is it possible that your colleague has some good ideas? Maybe being open minded about the ways in which you disagree will give you a new perspective on something you haven’t tried or considered before, and visa versa. At any rate, perhaps concluding that you are total opposites and cannot work together is a bit extreme.
Let’s look at the event you planned. Sure, the macaroni salad never came, and the bean bags leaked. What was the result? Did the guests starve? Maybe they raved about the chicken wings and the Caesar salad. Maybe they had a good laugh about the bean bags, and then had a blast with the water balloon fight. In all likelihood, the idea that the event was a total disaster is only in your own head, not in anyone else’s.
So how about dieting? You were doing great, and then you ate that tiramisu and all was lost. But was it? Would you tell an alcoholic friend of yours that 20 years of sobriety meant absolutely nothing because of one slip? Or that your daughter was totally blowing it at school after receiving her first B, having earned nothing but A’s up until that point? Give yourself a break, get back on track, and even re-examine your dietary expectations if they are unrealistic.
Okay Yo Yo Ma, so you’re in Tier 2 in the orchestra. That means you’re sucky, right? Might as well give up if you can’t reach Tier 1. Well first off, let’s be clear – you haven’t reached Tier one YET. Does it mean you’ll never reach Tier 1? Chances are you didn’t start in Tier 2, but in Tier 3, or some other less advanced spot. Achieving your dreams takes time, hard work, and practice. But regardless, if you’re in Tier 2 does it mean you’re sucky? No, it only means you’re not as good as the Tier 1 musicians, but hey, you’re better than the Tier 3 folks. So maybe that makes you good, or very good. Not the best – YET.
You see, it can be very stressful to employ black and white thinking because there’s no room for error. No room for disagreement, and no room for nuance. But error, disagreement, and nuance is the way of the universe. We simply need to learn how to adapt, see things from other points of view, and learn from our mistakes if we want things to go more smoothly. This is what cognitive flexibility is all about, and trust me, you’ll be much happier in life if you honor it.