How to Stop Black-or-White Thinking

 

Positively Present - Black and White

 

It's normal for us to want to categorizing things, to label them so we might make sense of them, but as soon as we start identifying something — as good, bad, or any other descriptor — we're limiting our understanding of the thing. (Yes, there are quite a few things that are easily and unequivocally defined, but the list of such things is likely shorter than you'd think.) Attempts to label or categorize are attempts to understand, to provide clarity for ourselves in a world that often doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But, unfortunately, these sense-striving attempts often take people away from common sense, leading them down an all-or-nothing path that ultimately limits understanding. 

If we truly want to understand someone or something, we're going to have to make some effort because, like it or not, our minds just want it to be easy. Our minds want quick and easy answers and, tempting as those might be, they're not truth. Some, admittedly, would rather have a false sense of understanding than truth, but, since you're reading this, I assume you're trying your best to have an honest understanding of the world (or, at least as honest as our little human brains can make it, given our many mental and emotional limitations). So if you really want to do your best to avoid all-or-nothing thinking, to resist the temptation to label something black or white rather than looking for the shades of gray, here are some ways to combat that natural urge to take something and paint it a single color: 

 

  • Open your mind to new ideas. Keeping an open mind seems like an obvious first step, but it's not always (in fact, it's rarely) our default mode, particularly as we get older and have experience and feel as if we know what something might be like. Not only should you strive to keep your mind open to ideas when discussing a specific topic, but it's also important to try keeping an open mind generally, as it'll help you hone your open-mindedness skills. When you strive to remain open-minded, you're likely to perceive a situation as it is rather than how you think it should be. Of course, we're all doing the best we can and we're limited by what we already know, but the more you practice seeing the world from different perspectives, trying to put yourself in others' shoes, and attempting to be mindful of the world around you, the easier it will become to keep an open mind. 

 

  • Let go of your expectations. Expectations are one of the main reasons all-or-nothing thinking happens. We think something "should" be a certain way, so we're either eager to accept the situation as normal when it happens as expected or we're quickly disappointed when the situation doesn't meet expectations. Letting go of expectations is one of the keys to ridding your mind of black-or-white thinking. Expectations — those little "should" and "should nots" in your mind — often force you to think in all-or-nothing. They set you up for mistakes, for assigning meaning where there might be none, for making judgments without truth or wisdom. Releasing expectations (particularly related to experiences you've had many times before) is a challenge, but it's a vital aspect of quelling black-or-white notions. 

 

  • Look for the myriad of colors. It's tempting to fall victim to seeing things in black or white, which is why we must practice being vigilant in looking for the various hues and shades of every person, situation, or idea we encounter. It's important to constantly remind yourself that there many different ways of looking at whatever situation you're in. One way to keep this in mind is by practicing with an everyday object. Take, for example, the sky. Try looking at it from different points of view — sitting on the ground, standing, atop a roof, from your car window. It's all the same sky and, while it's likely to look relatively the same regardless of where you are, there are differences you'll notice based on where you are. Likewise, try looking at the colors of a cloud. At first glance, it will look white, but if you look closely, you'll see shades of gray and pink and yellow. Try to remind yourself of the sky and the cloud when you encounter something you feel all-or-nothing about. Consider your perspective. Consider looking more closely. 

 

  • Try to see things as they are. Much as we might hate to admit it, most of us tend to see things the way we want to see them rather than the way they actually are. This distorted thinking causes us to see the "black" or "white" in a situation not because it is clearly one color, but because we want it to be that way. After all, it's much easier to understand "black" than it is to understand "dark gray with a hint of blue that looks somewhat purple in the right light." So we try to make it easy on ourselves. That's fine for certain things in which a quick decision is necessary — like determining if a stove is too hot to touch — but when it comes to understanding complex topics, such snap judgments won't benefit us in the long run if we're seeking truth. You're much more likely to avoid extreme thinking if you do your best to look at how things are rather than how you'd like them to be. Objectivity is a skill and it's not an easy one to master, but the more you practice, the better you'll become at seeing something's true colors. 

 

  • Avoid labeling with a single word. When you think of something in terms of one word, you're limiting it immediately. Think about it like this: if someone asks how your day is, you usually respond with words like "Good!" or "Terrible," but neither of those words are likely to accurately describe the entire day. Even the worst days have decent moments and even the best days have their struggles. Recognizing that everyday is more than "good" or "bad" is a great way to start realizing that situations, just like days, are nearly always more complex than a single descriptive phrase. Do your best to start describing things, like your day, in detail, and you'll be practicing the act of avoiding one-word labels that hinder open-minded thinking. 

 

Combatting black-or-white thinking is challenging, but with these tips — and lots of practice — hopefully we can all learn to focus a little bit more on the nuances of ideas, situations, and people and move away from the limitations of an all-or-nothing mentality. Let me know in the comments below if you have any additional tips for conquering black-or-white thinking!

 

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New Year, Same You?: In Praise of Positive Choices

 

Positively Present - Celebrate Positive Choices

 

When something really great happens — you get accepted to the school of your choice, you publish a book, you land the great job, you find love, you make the team, you get the A, you choose a new career path, you give birth to a human person — celebrating is easy. People around you get excited for you and, even if you're filled with uncertainty ('cause change, however positive, can be scary!), you likely feel some sort of positive feelings about having worked hard to accomplish something.

But, unless you're some kind of amazing superstar, these big "wins" are probably not an everyday occurrence. In fact, they might happen only a few times in your lifetime! While I'm all for celebrating life's big, exciting moments, I think we could all benefit from turning a little celebratory attention to the little, everyday wins. This is especially true at the start of a new year when you're probably trying to: (a) keep up with positive progress made last year, (b) start making positive progress this year 'cause last year was a bust, (c) maintain some combination of the A and B, or (d) come to terms with the fact that it's a new year and you better find a way to get your act together before a new decade comes along! 

No matter how you feel about new years, there's always a bit of pressure associated with the start, with those twelve months of possibility stretching out before you. Resolutions or not, we all hope that this year will be better than last year (or, if last year was a great one, hope that this year will live up to it). We're all eyes ahead, focused on what we want to do or achieve in the weeks to come. Many of us are trying to better ourselves, to make choices that will be more aligned with who we want to be in the future. The beginning of each year offers such hope to be a better version of ourselves, and, while that hope can propel some of us into positive action, it can also make an awful lot of us feel like we're already failing at the year, even just a few days in. 

Personally, I had grand ideas for my post-holiday self. The end of the year is always my busiest, both personally and professionally, so I often find myself saying that "X will be different in the New Year" or "In January, I'm going to tackle Y." Not surprisingly, we're a week in and few things have changed dramatically from the time when the calendar read 2018. Change, at least for me, tends to happen slowly, and frequently it's only when I reflect back on things that I realize how much progress I've made. 

I frequently face a "new year, same me" frustration, growing angry at myself for not making all of the picture perfect choices I swore I would make once that calendar page had turned. But yesterday, after chastising myself for a not-so-great choice I made, I found myself mumbling, "I wonder how many good choices you make every single day and don't even think about."

And that little sentence stopped me in my tracks. How many positive choices do I make all the time without even thinking about them? How many changes have I made, over time, that I don't even think about praising myself for because they've become habits? While mulling over these questions, I recognized quite a few good choices I've made recently that a previous version of myself might not have made, like...

  • I didn't pick up my book and read for hours in the middle of a workday 
  • I didn't say the not-very-nice, judgmental thing that came to mind 
  • I didn't sleep in, neglecting the dog until much too late in the morning
  • I didn't order pizza when I had a perfectly good meal in the fridge
  • I didn't forget to take medicine and a rest when I got a headache
  • I didn't skip writing in my gratitude journal, which brings me joy
  • I didn't go down to the corner store and pick up a bottle of wine
  • I didn't put off vacuuming even though I really wanted to
  • I didn't send a call to voicemail and avoid the conversation
  • I didn't leave the bed unmade (which always makes me unsettled)
  • I didn't delete the email and avoid my editing tasks
  • I didn't conclude that I could skip this week's blog post
  • I didn't turn down an opportunity to help a friend in need
  • I didn't consume an entire bag of candy mindlessly
  • I didn't neglect my daily yoga practice, even while very tired
  • I didn't allow myself to smoke cigarettes like I used to 
  • I didn't leave dirty dishes stacked up in the kitchen sink
  • I didn't throw plastic in the trashcan instead of the recycling bin
  • I didn't lose my patience with the incessantly yapping dog
  • I didn't ignore the spreadsheets, despite the boredom they bring
  • I didn't buy that thing I really don't need but really wanted

These are just a few of the good choices I've made recently, most of them made without thinking twice about them. This list isn't meant to be, Woohoo! Look at me and all I've done right! It's meant to show you that, despite the plethora of not-great choices I've made so far this year, I've also made a lot of good choices too!

If you're like me and you're feeling a bit let down by the new year, unsure if you'll be able to live up to your 2018 self's version of who you'd be this year, I highly recommend writing a list of your own. Especially if you're working on New Year's resolutions (or if you've already broken them), writing down a list of positive choices you've made — even if they seem silly or obvious, like brushing your teeth or going to work — can really help you reframe the start of the year for you. 

A new year is a great time to make changes, make resolutions, set intentions, etc., but don't let it be a time when you beat yourself up for all you're not yet doing, forgetting about all the positive choices you've made (or are currently making). We're all on different paths. What's positive for me might not be for you; what feels like a big accomplish for me might be effortless for you. So take some time this week to think about what you've been doing — particularly the things you've done so many times that you don't even think about them anymore — and celebrate them. Because, when you think about it, all of those big wins in life — the moments we celebrate with fervor and festivity, confetti and congratulations — are really only possible because of all of the little wins we take for granted. 

 

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F.A.C.E. Your Feelings: How to Cope with Mixed Emotions


Mixed_Feelings_
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On the last day of the year, I've found myself reflecting on the past twelve months and, in particular, the ebb and flow my relationships. While reflecting, I realized I was trying to fit my relationships (and people!) into neat little boxes, labeled "GOOD" or "BAD," and it just wasn't working out. Because, as I'm sure you know, relationships are complex. They don't always fit clearly into boxes. They can't always be labeled clearly.

My feelings about most people, even those I love dearly, are mixed. For someone like me, who really likes to identify and label things in order to better analyze and understand them, this can be tricky. So, I decided to do what I always do when confronted with trickiness: write about it! I sat down this morning to write about the idea of mixed feelings and realized, ultimately, that it doesn't have to be a negative thing. Sure, it would be great if we could identify every person in our lives as "good" or "bad" so that we'd know who to surround ourselves with, but life -- and people! -- don't work like that. 

Like it or not, mixed feelings are a part of relationships, so we might as well learn to deal with them the best we can! I came up with a little method I like to call F.A.C.E. that can help you (and me!) cope with the complicated mess of mixed feelings. This is especially useful for people you love and interact with often (as those are the people we often have the most complex relationships with!), but I bet it can work pretty well for new relationships as well as a way to figure out how you really feel about a person you're just getting to know! 

 

FIGURE OUT THE FEELINGS

First and foremost, you have to figure out what you're feeling! This may sound obvious, but when you spend a lot of time with someone or have known them for a long time, sometimes we don't even pay attention to how we feel about them. Figuring out precisely what you feel is essential for coping with the mixed emotions. There are many different ways to feel about others, but here's a list of some emotions you might consider while figuring out your feelings (note: lots of these words aren't technically considered emotions in the psychological sense, but I find these words helpful when trying to figure out feelings):

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Amusement
  • Anger
  • Awe
  • Bitterness
  • Bliss
  • Boredom
  • Calm
  • Comfort
  • Contentment
  • Desire
  • Disgust
  • Distain
  • Distrust
  • Envy
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Gratitude
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Hope
  • Hurt
  • Interest
  • Irritation
  • Jealousy
  • Joy
  • Kindness
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Peace
  • Pity
  • Pride
  • Rage
  • Relaxed
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Safe
  • Secure
  • Serenity
  • Shame
  • Surprise
  • Tenderness
  • Trust
  • Unsafe
  • Wonder

 

ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR EMOTIONS

Next, it's important to pay attention to what's happening when you're actually interacting with that person. It's one thing to sit down alone and consider how a person makes you feel, but it's quite another to tune into it in the moment. Here are three questions to consider when contemplating mixed emotions: 

  1. How do I feel when I think about spending time with them? 
  2. How do I feel while I'm spending time with them? 
  3. How do I feel after I've just spend time with them?

There is likely more than one answer to these questions depending on the day and circumstances, but paying attention to these three questions frequently will give you a better sense of how this person makes you feel overall and can clue you into nuances about the relationship that you might not have otherwise realized. 

 

CONSIDER YOUR OPTIONS

After you've given consideration to how you feel about the person generally and how you feel in specific situations, before, after, and during interactions with this person, now it's time to go a little further and consider the big question: So what? You've now got a pretty good idea of what you feel about this person, but now you have to consider what this means. Understanding the mixed feelings you have usually will lead to one of three conclusions: 

  1. This person is no good for me and I should spend less time with them. 
  2. This person is good for me and I should spend more time with them. 
  3. This person is both good and bad for me and I should be mindful of the time spent with them. 

Those are pretty much the options you have when dealing with a relationship, which leads us to the last step...

 

EMBRACE CHANGE OR ACCEPTANCE

Recognizing your options (see 1-3 above) doesn't mean that you're actually going to take action, which is where this next step comes in. You have two choices: embrace change (if necessary) or accept things as they are, for better or worse. Sometimes, after going through these steps, you might come to the conclusion that someone is no good for you but you still might want to spend lots of time with them. That's up to you, but if you choose that path, you must accept the consequences of it. On the flip side, if you find that change (spending more or less time with someone) is necessary, it's up to you to embrace -- and perhaps initiate -- that change. Whatever the situation, it generally comes down to one of two options: change or accept. 

 

Most of us probably run through the F.A.C.E. method in our subconscious without even realizing it, but taking the time to really deal with mixed emotions and actively choose an outcome is empowering, even if we don't always choose the thing that's best for us. There's something powerful about making a choice -- even the wrong one -- rather than just floating along and waiting for something to happen. Yes, there are two people in every relationship, but the only one you can control is yourself, so you might as well take charge of your feelings and actively make some choices, especially as we're heading into a new year! 

 

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