Black and white thinking is not just a distorted pattern of cognition that contributes to anxiety and depression. It’s a killer of dreams.
When we think in black and white terms, we’re going the “all or nothing” route. We assume that if a situation is bad, it must be all bad, and nothing can salvage it. Or we assume a situation that is good is all good, and there are no shortcomings or challenges that we have to deal with.
Sometimes we fall into black and white thinking because a situation has been so challenging to us, that we can’t possibly see any opportunities or upsides in it. It’s a defense mechanism that we use to shield ourselves from further disappointment and pain by limiting our awareness of nuance. When a situation has been consistently challenging or painful for a long enough time, it becomes hurtful to hope or to keep looking for opportunities to change things, thus slapping a black and white “filter” on the situation seems like a logical thing for our brains to do.
However, black and white thinking most often robs us of any chance we might have to actually change a painful situation.
Black and white thinking leads us down a fatalistic rabbit hole where all our defeats are final and fatal.
Black and white thinking leads us to a place where, even when presented with a potential course of action, we kind of shrug our shoulders and say, “Easier said than done.”
It’s true that many, if not most, things are “easier said than done.” If personal development and emotional growth were easy, there’d be no point in writing or talking about it.
But when we fall into the “easier said than done” pattern of thinking, it’s as if we’re proclaiming to the universe, “Because this thing is hard, it’s impossible to do.” It’s a form of black and white thinking: “all hard things are too hard.”
The truth of personal development and emotional growth is even more complex: yes, it’s hard, and often complicated.
Yes, our pasts often leave us with debris that we have to clear away en route to a more empowered life.
Yes, those are very real and non-trivial obstacles.
However…because personal growth is often hard, that doesn’t mean it’s as hard as it seems.
Because personal growth is hard, that doesn’t mean it’s as hard as some people make it out to be.
The fact of the matter is, personal growth is just like anything: when you understand the principles of behavioral psychology involved and get practice chopping big tasks into smaller tasks, and smaller tasks into even smaller tasks, all the way down to the point where all that’s in front of you is one teeny tiny step that you truly feel is doable…that’s when it becomes realistic.
That’s when progress is made.
In getting to that place where all we’re focused on is the next teeny, tiny little step, it’s essential to remember that each new moment is an opportunity to start over. No matter how many times we’ve “screwed up” in the past. No matter how we’ve been abused or neglected. No matter what messages we’ve received about our worth and skills. The bottom line is that everybody reading these words has the ability to chop big goals down into littler goals, and little goals down into realistic, achievable steps.
Nobody can take your ability to take baby steps away.
Black and white thinking is insidious. It discourages us from trying to take baby steps. It says that if one thing feels overwhelming, then all things must feel overwhelming. If one thing feels undaoble, then all of the little tasks that comprise the thing must also be undoable. If you failed at one thing, that means you’ve failed at everything.
It’s baloney. Black and white thinking is one way of looking at problems…and very infrequently the most helpful.
How can you move away from black and white thinking? The same way we move away from any pattern of thinking that’s unhelpful…one little bit at a time.
The first step is just noticing when you’re feeling overwhelmed. That’s almost always a surefire sign that you’re thinking in black and white terms. When you do feel overwhelmed, take a few steps back, and examine the thoughts that are going through your head.
Are you trying to bite off more than you can chew?
Are you mentally trying to make a huge hurdle all at once, instead of chopping the obstacle down into smaller, more manageable hurdles?
Are you overlooking the nuances of a situation, and instead making a black and white pronouncement about the situation as a whole?
Thinking in shades of grey isn’t sexy. Chopping big goals down into littler and littler chunks isn’t fun. It’s often more fun to think about being able to leap tall buildings in a singe bound.
But…that’s how progress is made in the real world. That’s how goals are achieved in the real world.
One little bit at a time.
2 thoughts on “What’s black and white and distorted all over?”
Well stated, Dr. Doyle….peeling off the layers of our emotional and behavioral onion and then working on the needed changes. People are willing to invest in hard work and practice to improve their tennis games or golf skills but rarely invest that same time and energy in personal growth and self improvement.
Almost daily, I read your posts on Facebook. They have lead me to read your various articles. I want to let you know your method of reaching out to people, using words and examples that are understandable by most readers, is really helping many people, myself included.
For the last 20 years I have struggled with depression. Situational Depression became virtually chronic until I was able to completely break free of an abusive relationship. Sadly, it took me 35 years to escape my marriage to a controlling, narrasistic man. That was two years ago.
I wish your skill and method of educating people had been available 34 years ago. Thanks to a good family doctor, various therapy, some medication and the deep down belief that my children and I deserved a better life, we all survived. All of us carry scars from the past. Day by day our lives are improving. I forward your articles to my children, as well as to friends in need of councilling, and to people I know who want to improve themselves.
Since reading your articles, I have become mindful of my thoughts, my self esteem is returning and every day I accomplish a little step towards my goal. My long term goal is to love who I am and possibly, eventually, be medication free.
You probable have no idea how valuable your articles are. Sincere gratuide is being sent to you from one family you have helped immensely.
Today I smile!