Black and White Thinking

by Monica Ross

Next up is a discussion of living in the extremes or black and white and thinking. It’s the fifth unhelpful thinking style, so we’re half way through this journey together on the 10 unhelpful thinking styles of CBT. There are only 5 more left to cover after this. So, why would living in the extremes be problematic? Well it doesn’t allow for much room for flexibility. People who live in the extremes tend to see things as either all good or all bad. They may think to themselves I’m either a success or I’m a failure.

With their children or their spouses they may think there isn’t much room for second best and those around them may pick up on the pressure to perform. If the performance expectations aren’t met, there can be conflict in their relationships.

People with this thinking style also may feel they have a clear sense of right or wrong. We all to certain extent have our own moral compass, but those with black and white thinking sit in the judge’s chair and make all the decrees.

They may feel their moral compass works better than most other’s with no room for negotiation, compromise, or seeing circumstances from another’s viewpoint.  In reality there is both good and bad within ourselves, within others, and within the world around us.

Sometimes in psychology when entering into a discussion of black and white thinking we also talk about something called splitting. People who have borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder will often engage in splitting where, unable to accept the nuances and subtleties of others they will either view a person as all good or all bad.

Splitting is an unconscious ego defense mechanism that emerges out of psychoanalytic theory. The person standing opposite of the person with these tendencies may get dizzy with feeling like one day they’re within favor and the next day they’re out. They may experience a constant back and forthness with it as the person doing the splitting struggles to provide a sense of security and stability, which ultimately they may be unable to do unless they work through their own issues.

For some, to be able to simplify life by categorizing people as all bad serves as a means of bolstering one’s own self worth. Think about it, if I have insider knowledge of what is right or wrong, of who is good and who is bad, it puts me in a position of never having to deal with uncertainty.

The question then becomes what is so uncomfortable about uncertainty?

One way of combating the tendency to think of the world and others in extremes is to look for the gray areas instead of feeling a need to be right about any given situation. It’s about being able to sit with the possibility that one is wrong without feeling any anxiety about being wrong.

DBT or dialectical behavioral therapy is often recommended for people suffering from borderline personality disorder. Marsha Linehan the founder of DBT suffered from borderline personality disorder herself. The basic concept of DBT or the dialectic part of dialectical behavioral therapy is that life is both about change and about acceptance.

To be in pain-- be it emotional or physical pain--and not to accept that one is in pain is to suffer. But if we over focus on the importance of change and personal growth we may send the message that there is something wrong with where we may be in life at this moment.

On the other hand, to over focus on acceptance of where we are at in this given moment is to ignore the fact that we may be in pain at the moment and don’t want to remain there. So DBT attempts to integrate the two.

But bottom line here, it’s important to get comfortable with uncertainty. There really isn’t that much that is certain life. What is the saying? “Nothing is certain, except death and taxes.” Well life isn’t all that morbid.

I like the way that Rilke puts it in Letters to a Young Poet.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Think of Taosim and the yin yang symbol. We see examples of pairs of opposites in so many things in life, so many dualities. There is light and there is dark, there is love there is fear, there is health and there is sickness, there is masculine and there is feminine, there is old and there is young, and so on.

But where really does one end and one begin?

Can we mark for instance an exact point in the transition from day to night, from lightness to dark or for that matter from young to old? The ying-yang symbol is meant to demonstrate that the opposites in life work in harmony and are balanced and that the sum of them together is greater than each separate part. They are intricately interconnected and intertwined.

If you have an interest in this kind of stuff, take a look at this 4 minute TED Talk on yin-yang.  We in an effort to make sense of the world sometimes speak with language that draws clear lines between what we perceive to be polar opposites.  But it's also interesting to think that these categories that we put things into are up for questioning themselves and cannot so easily be defined despite our best efforts.  If that is the case and we know that things are in flux, shifting and changing, then why the attempt for certainty and permanency?  I think it's a good question to ask ourselves.