Black and white thinking is what happens when we assume things are all one way, all one thing, or the other.

No grey, no ambiguity, no wiggle room, no nuance.

It’s an exceedingly common cognitive pattern. Humans rather like to think in black and white.

Shades of grey, after all, are often confusing. They’re inconvenient.

Shades of grey are a hassle, insofar as they require us to do more thinking than stark black and white categories do.

When things are black and white, we don’t have to do the hard work of really sitting with potential contradictions; examining evidence; feeling our way around the edges of what might or might not be “true” or “real.”

Make no mistake: I absolutely believe there are black and white truths in the world. I think there are things that are true and untrue; right and wrong; okay and not okay.

Black and white do exist.

But not nearly as often, and not in as many places, as our brains like to tell us.

And it is absolutely the case that black and white thinking almost always creates more, and bigger, problems than it solves.

The “benefits” of black and white thinking— a sense of certainty, clarity, security— don’t tend to hold up the real world. Because most of the real world doesn’t fall into the category of unambiguous black and white.

Most of the time when we think in black and white, it’s not about unambiguous moral issues like murder or torture or cruelty.

Most of the time, we take those black and white thinking patterns and apply them to our own conduct— in areas where it just doesn’t work.

Many times, there isn’t a “right” answer for questions like, “what should I have done in this situation?”

Many times, there isn’t a “right” answer for questions like, “what should I do next?”

Many times, there isn’t a ‘“right” answer for questions like, “Am I good or bad?”

We wish there were black and white answers to those questions. It would make life so much simpler, more straightforward. But there simply aren’t.

We have to give up the illusion that black and white thinking can solve our problems by making things clear and true.

Our motives are very often— most often— a complex combination of factors.

Our perceptions are very often— most often— a complex mix.

There are very often no black and white answers to why we do what we do; why we want what we want; why we did what we did.

I’m not asking you to give up your search for truth or your passion for clarity. Indeed, I feel we must continue to search for what’s right, what’s true, to be clear about what matters and what doesn’t.

I’m asking you to remember that black and white thinking, when rigidly applied to our own lives, can often create more confusion, unhappiness, and frustration than not.

I’m asking you to remember that most often, you, and the people around you, and even the people from your past, exist in lighter and darker shades of grey.

I’m asking you to have compassion for yourself, instead of holding yourself to a rigid standard that human beings were not designed to be held to.

You can absolutely remain committed to truth, while acknowledging the nuances of reality.

You can absolutely hold yourself to high standards, while still remaining committed to fairness and compassion with yourself.

Be real with your thinking.

Be kind…in your head.


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