Problems arise all the time, but how you register them defines how you react to them, so it’s important to pay attention. It’s human nature to want to see a situation as simply as possible, but when you fail to give nuance to it and don’t consider the gray area there is a lot of room for error. Unfortunately for many people over-simplifying circumstances is the default choice, and focusing on the extremes causes a lot of stress and anxiety. Black-and-white thinking (also known as all-or-nothing thinking) is reductive thinking that only considers the extremes of a situation, such as all-bad or all-good, but never in-between.
“Everybody is going to laugh at me if I do this.”
“I’m going to lose all of my friends if I do that.”
“Everything is going absolutely wrong.”
If you’ve caught yourself ever thinking this or even saying it out loud, chances are you have the tendency to think in black and white. When you think in black and white you eliminate all possibilities of anything being in between. You reject or are uncomfortable with the existence of a gray area and immediately seek to categorize problems and their outcomes. While you can never fully eliminate this sort of thinking, the good news is that there are a couple of ways you can control it!
***Disclaimer: This is in no way a proposed solution for anxiety or depression, nor should it be mistaken as one.***
Take A Step Back
Pause, take a deep breath, and recognize that your fight-or-flight instinct is starting to kick in. Your fight-or-flight instinct is a natural reflex that allows you to make quick decisions in moments of stress, creating over-simplified thinking in order to react on the spot. This over-simplified thinking, however, can make a situation seem more threatening than it actually is, creating even more stress and prolonging the decision-making process. As soon as you start to panic and become anxious you inhibit your brain from thinking logically, and this clouded judgment is where the problem arises. As soon as you feel yourself enter this cycle, take a step back. Distance yourself from the situation until you’re calm enough to analyze the situation from a rational point of view, and then make your decision.
Pay Attention to Your Language
Do you see yourself using extreme words or exaggerating details when reflecting on a situation or speaking to other people? How you express yourself is not only telling of the way you navigate life, but it also heightens your fears and reinforces your own ideas of what the outcome will be. Unless you’re writing a novel, save the drama for later and start thinking and speaking about situations objectively. Drop the adjectives and state the details as a matter of fact, and watch how your reaction towards the circumstance changes. Of course this is going to require some practice, but the way that you speak to yourself and others hugely influences the way you think and internalize the information needed to react.
Ask Yourself “What’s the Worse That Could Happen?”
Get out a piece of paper and make a t-chart, with one side highlighting the worst case scenarios and the other highlighting the best case scenarios. (You can do it in your head, but writing it down helps you think more objectively). Think beyond your own emotions and be honest with yourself when filling out both sides. We often think catastrophically and expect the very worst when analyzing the outcomes of a certain action or situation, but ask yourself what you really think could possibly happen and be rational. Consider whether your own fears realistically align with what people will see or think, or what events will unfold, and remember that you are your worst critic. This step won’t work if you don’t take into account the first two, so make sure you’re being a fair judge and weighing both areas.
Reconnect With Your Intentions
What is your purpose? How is black-and-white thinking stopping you from reaching your goals, or even achieving small successes? As stated before, over-simplifying situations can be helpful at certain times, but when that is the only way your brain works it strays you further away from your intentions. Because of that, it’s important to keep your purpose in mind at all times as a reminder of where you want to be, and how your reaction can lead you closer to or further away from that. This isn’t so you can blame yourself whenever you make a mistake, but to serve as a little voice in your head that motivates you when you’re stuck from anxiety or stress. Who knows, you might even discover your intentions have shifted and evolved to fit your current state of mind.
As I always say, be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to find the gray area; it’s not easy, and if it were there wouldn’t be so many books and articles written about this behavior. It’s human nature to want to simplify situations and categorize people in ways that fails to make space for nuances and important details, but when you use this logic in every aspect of your life it becomes a toxic behavior. The fact that you’ve recognized this behavior and are trying to control it (or at least become more knowledgeable about it) is something to be proud about in itself, so I commend you. If you’ve learned of ways to inhibit black and white thinking or have an experience to share, drop it in the comments below!
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