We all like to feel safe. When chaos and uncertainty surround us, it is common to fall back on rigid thinking in order to create the sense of control, predictability, and make sense out of the inexplicable. Reducing a complex world into right and wrong, good and bad, successful and unsuccessful, and so on might seem to give us security until we have to confront the endless variables that suddenly make our black and white thinking so grey.
A lot of us are experiencing fear and heightened stress these days. Many of us live in a state of adrenaline, fight or flight, and hypervigilance. When we are afraid we often resort to primitive ways of thinking that include language such as “always”, “never”, and “must”. We tell ourselves to “never” associate with certain people, to “always” present a certain way, and that we “must” adhere to societally driven formulas to succeed. These rules for ourselves and others leave little room for flexibility and a lot of room for disappointment. An all or nothing experience emerges…
We either succeed or we fail, someone is a good guy or a bad guy, something is either right or it is wrong.
Black and white thinking limits both our grace for ourselves and others in addition to robbing potential connection, self-discovery, and empathy. Because the world is not static and ultimately nuanced with a whole lot of grey, holding tight to such rigidity can perpetuate pessimism, perfectionistic thinking, depression, and anxiety. We may feel like we are running a race and the finish line keeps on moving.
Seeing the world as grey can be uncomfortable especially when we may feel threatened or when we have been hurt. We categorize, we stereotype, and we generalize. We let labels and assumptions take over. We hesitate to let go of our way of sorting the world due to fear we may get hurt. To defend our black and white thinking we find ways to validate our worldview perhaps through the media we choose to consume, the people we surround ourselves with, or the spiritual beliefs we adhere to. Essentially, we often find what we are looking for.
Because black and white thinking is often kept alive by fear, we must defend the fear to defend our thought processes and thus, in many ways, it creates a fear-based existence. It turns out spending so much time and energy defending ourselves and seeking validation can also be quite exhausting.
When we let go of the black and white in exchange for the grey, we open doors for kindness and understanding for ourselves and others. We can more readily “step into someone else’s shoes”. The pressures that we put on ourselves are not as burdensome, and compassion comes easier.
It is important to question how we categorize ourselves- what labels, roles, and rules have we tried to adhere to? Are these restorative or draining to our being and those around us? Do they allow for growth and self-exploration or do they keep us confined?
As we consider the world of yes and no, good and bad, right and wrong, successful and unsuccessful, we must recognize that these are all on a spectrum nuanced by numerous variables unique to each of us. Putting aside black and white thinking and embracing the grey takes courage but can also be pretty darn liberating. In the words of Deepak Chopra, “Instead of thinking outside the box, get rid of the box”.
Thanks for listening everyone.
Audry Van Houweling, PMHNP-BC, Owner of She Soars Psychiatry, LLC
Sisters & Silverton, Oregon