Hi, my name is Holly, and I’m recovering from black and white thinking. I’m not exactly sure how, when, and where I learned to think this way. But looking at the divisiveness and anger surrounding the current issues we’re facing, it’s clear I’m not the only one who has fallen into the all-or-nothing trap. So today I’ll share a bit about how black and white thinking hurts us and what we can do to change it.
WHAT IS BLACK AND WHITE THINKING?
Black and white thinking is also known as all or nothing thinking. It’s the idea that things are either good or bad and leaves no room for the reality of nuance. Examples of all or nothing thinking are prevalent in politics, especially here in the United States, where everything has been divided between right or left. While politics is one of the best examples, you can identify black and white thinking in every aspect of our culture from believing that all carbs are bad to the idea that you need a college degree to be a success.
I’m not an expert on the topic but I was an experienced black and white thinker for much of my life. I imagine that there are a number of reasons I believed everything in life was all or nothing. First off, many of the people around me thought this way and continue to think like this today. Thus, I came to believe that everything was either right or wrong. I either loved things or hated them. And I was quite certain that my way what THE way.
Another thing that likely contributed to my black and white thinking was my desperate desire to feel like I belonged. If you pick a side on something, you’re instantly a part of something bigger. While this quenches our need to feel like we belong, it isn’t always positive. When you hear gang members, white supremacists, or religious extremists speak out, they always mention their innate drive to find belonging.
Bring the two together, needing to belong and being surrounded by others who think similarly, and your black and white beliefs become your reality. Keep in mind that my struggle with black and white thinking was long before the echo chambers of social media and internet search tools. Needless to say, it’s an easy pattern to fall into, now more than ever.
Finally, black and white thinking can be a sort of defense mechanism that shields us from hurt or failure. When I tell myself, I could never do that because I’m a woman, what I’m really saying is that I’m afraid to try.
HOW BLACK AND WHITE THINKING HARMS YOU
The biggest issue with black and white thinking that I see today is the anger and the divisiveness that surrounds us. I’m publishing this post nine months after the coronavirus pandemic first showed up in the U.S and I’m still trying to understand how a global health crisis has become political. The host of my favorite podcast on the topic has shared countless stories about relationships that have ended over friend’s and family’s beliefs about this virus. In a society that already struggles with loneliness and isolation, black and white thinking only divides us further.
Another problem with black and white thinking is that it prevents you from achieving your full potential. I’ve already mentioned the belief that you need a college degree to get ahead. If you’ve read my other work and ALL of the books I’ve referenced, I’m clearly a lover of learning. I also happen to have a college degree. So I am by no means saying that college has no doesn’t have value. What I am saying, though, is that not having a degree doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life struggle and poverty. We all know people who have worked their way up from the bottom and one of the keys to their success was the ability to shift this very mindset.
As I mentioned in the last section, all of these factors come together to create pain and hardship in our lives. Feeling isolated and like we don’t have what it takes affects our health, happiness, as well as the people we love.
HOW TO CHANGE BLACK AND WHITE THINKING
I first recognized my own tendency toward black and white thinking while listening to a podcast about a decade ago. One of my early virtual mentors talked about finding “and solutions.” For example, we often hear that leaving a “good job” to find work we love will mean taking a pay cut. What if instead, as my mentor suggested, we believed that we could find meaningful work AND make an abundant income.
My thinking began to shift immediately. I loved the idea that I could potentially find an “and solution” for all of the “either-or” beliefs I had. But as they say, old habits die hard. While I lean toward the “both-and” style of thinking, I still need to check myself from time to time.
The solution to changing black and white thinking comes down to paying attention to that dialogue in our head that often runs on auto-pilot. When you recognize words like can’t, never, always, good, bad, love, hate … stop and pay attention. Could what you’re telling yourself actually be more nuanced? Could there be an and solution instead of an either-or? Who cares if the solution seems likely? Is it simply possible a both-and solution exists?
The next step is to practice. Obviously with yourself, but also with the other people you interact with regularly: your coworkers, friends, and loved ones. Challenge their either-or thinking by asking if there’s a both-and solution. Like anything, it will take some time before it becomes a habit but once it does, it will change your life.