By Linda Kelly, MSW, RSW
Throughout our lives, we often create undue stress by placing people or situations in “either/or” categories, such as thinking things are either right or wrong or as successes or failures. We create a world that is limited to black-and-white thinking. We do this because it gives us a sense of security and control over life’s uncertainties. This kind of thinking tricks us into believing we have everything figured out; which feels good, but only temporarily.
The truth is black-and-white thinking actually narrows our vision and creates insecurity. It colours all of our experiences, pressures us to live in extremes, and does not account for the “gray area.” Thus, if your performance ever falls short of perfect, you will be inclined to see yourself as a total failure. As you can see, this type of thinking can be emotionally and physically damaging. The fact is life does not work that way. Life is actually full of subtle balance and varying degrees in every area. In fact, there are really very few situations where gray areas cannot be considered.
Warning words for spotting black-and-white thinking:
These are some of the common words associated with black-and-white thinking. If you spot yourself using these words, challenge yourself to think in a different way. To begin to incorporate “gray area thinking,” let’s take a look at a specific example:
Imagine yourself failing a math exam. You might say to yourself “I am just plain stupid.”
This is an example of black-and-white thinking as you are jumping to a conclusion about your intelligence based on one grade on a single exam. We can all make inner statements about ourselves, but that doesn’t make them true statements. Consider the following:
Can I be an intelligent person and still fail an exam?
Can my partner love me but sometimes be insensitive?
Can I love my children and still get angry with them?
Can one part of my life be difficult and other parts be easier?
Can aspects of my life be difficult in the moment, but become easier in the future?
Can some parts of an experience be awful and other parts be enjoyable?
Becoming less rigid in our thinking allows us to avoid using black-and-white statements that can be emotionally and physically damaging. Spotting your own patterns can often be easier with the help of a friend or properly-trained professional. If this sounds like you, know that you can gain control and put an end to black-and-white thinking. We can help.
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