Updated: Jun 27
The struggle out of thinking in black and white- Where is the Grey Zone?
Your mental health is essential to your whole health. Whatever stage or age you are in, guarding your mental health is vital to maintaining its function. It isn’t about putting walls up around you. It is about healthy boundaries, a balanced and sustainable lifestyle, feeling safe to explore and discover your strengths, and growing beyond your weaknesses. Simply put, you can maintain and produce those precious neuron fibers with a curious mind. The drive to learn, set and achieve your goals, small or large.
You can patiently manage brain health by creating your vision and thriving path. You may be experiencing a drawback to achieving your goals by how you think and process what is happening around you. You may get stuck in black-and-white or polarized thinking, or someone around you may influence you to process your thoughts in black-and-white. In psychology, this is called “splitting.” Or in other words, it is dichotomous thinking where “something splits into two distinct and opposing parts,” like us and them or all-or-nothing. If you are experiencing black-and-white thinking, you are not alone.
Relentlessly Seeking Knowledge
Within our primary education, adolescence, adulting, and throughout the rest of our life, a day shouldn’t go by without asking yourself, “What am I going to learn today? Like any other individually practiced skill, we recognize learning moments with mindfulness and intention. You may actively seek out daily learning or let those moments happen organically. You may even need to learn how to learn again.
Yet, the mass societal and worldwide shutdown brought on by the Coronavirus Pandemic created prolonged isolation and incredible anxiety about the unknown, which essentially altered and delayed the learning process. At the same time, the collision with current generational political divisiveness and unrest. Humanity ended up in extreme survival mode, whether you lost a business or job or projects came to a screeching halt. You may have been forced to postpone life events or travel, working from home while simultaneously keeping your kids educated, or couldn’t hold the hand of your loved one who was passing. With the fight or flight mode kicked in high gear and so many new, unexpected challenges like wearing a mask in public, it is no wonder we are still processing and recovering. It seems to have shifted our thought patterns from more relaxed, cooperative insightful thinking to the extremes of black-and-white thought. No doubt, it felt like all or nothing. Being isolated and quarantined tested our everyday coping strategies. The fear of spreading the infection to the more vulnerable higher risk-of-death candidates was a daily contagious threat. Navigating our normal public pathways with floor markers every six feet puts more pressure on the psyche. Everything became abnormal in the new normal. It is difficult to think clearly and objectively when the mode of operations is fear, trepidation, and turmoil in communities worldwide. It was like living in a real-time doomsday movie. Finding new self-soothing strategies to stay calm became the unique fabric of comfort, from mastering sourdough making to binge-watching shows to distract the mind from possible peril.
Being disconnected, we lost some learning opportunities and memorable moments, could not take insight from peers, separated children from teachers, and suspended gatherings with family and friends. Our psyches took a beating with the intensity of the daily pressure of survival mode- fight or flight.
Life is full of positive and negative spaces, and we can learn from both. But, the divisiveness, all or nothing, either/or, love/hate, us/them dichotomous thinking has a burdensome quality on mental health and can lead to other health issues. Being locked into polarized thinking leaves little room for growth and awareness.
As a society, we have fallen into the trap of extremes. I recently read an article by Dana Basu, PsyD; she states, “The way we think has enormous power in shaping how we feel.” She describes the triangle, which consists of thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how our thoughts lead to emotions that influence our behavior.
When trapped in extreme all-or-nothing thinking, our feelings become rigid, and our impulsive tendencies are revealed. It can become a negative spiral that is not only uncomfortable but can be challenging to unwind. As a creative society teaches more understanding of mindfulness and meditation, the better we become at listening to our thoughts, connecting to feelings, and controlling behavior.
I have learned to manage my perfectionism through cognitive therapy and some- anxiety medication. Thinking with perfectionism, I leaned toward all-or-nothing thought patterns. If the results weren’t perfect, it wasn’t good enough. This specific mindset was beneficial when I did detailed makeup and hair, but it doesn’t bode well in everyday living. Applying perfectionism to my daily life made me feel less empowered and more frustrated because life isn’t perfect; people are not perfect. Common life challenges, whether engaging in human interaction, technical issues with a computer or phone, or maybe you boiled your pasta too long, can be seen as monumental frustrations when locked into polarized all-or-nothing thinking. You may find yourself wanting to give up. I certainly have from time to time. You may think things like:
I will never be able to figure this out. I am a horrible cook. Why am I not smart enough? I will never get the skills I need. I am not athletic enough.
The vicious spiral of negative thoughts is very rigid. There is little to no room for flexibility hindering mental health.
A person can apply rigid black-and-white thinking toward another person, saying or thinking things like: They are too stupid to understand my side of things. They are always wrong.
They will never be right.
Society is in a mental health crisis with a polarized mindset.
The extremes of black-and-white thinking can cause one person to believe they are correct and another completely wrong. Both sides targeted the faults of the other, and each party backed into a corner-- we can’t learn well, which makes learning from each other nearly impossible. It makes learning altogether like a mountain we don’t have the tools or gear to climb safely.
You don’t need to hate someone just because they differ in opinion. We need to relearn how to agree to disagree and move past bracing ourselves in a corner and moving toward a middle ground. Let’s be part of more productive problem-solving and start listening to the other side. If you aren’t listening, you avoid learning and deplete your knowledge to draw from. Let’s be fact-finders, courageously inquisitive, and relentlessly seeking knowledge; we are here to evolve as a species. Without collective learning, we are simply a product of our minds and prone to repeat mistakes. We become encapsulated by one sort of self-serving omnipotent thought pattern and not a product of gathering or expansive evolution.
Why Lashing Out is a Bad Idea
By reactive lashing out backed by all-or-nothing, dichotomous thinking doesn’t only negatively affect the other person, but it is harmful to your psyche. While anger is a normal response to frustrations, elevated anger can turn into abusive behavior, and visceral outrage can be deadly. You are damaging your mind by not developing more productive coping skills. Like all things in life, it takes practice. It takes effort and awareness. Even when triggered by a negative experience, comment, or adverse memory and you lose your grounding with unleashed emotions, bringing yourself back to the center can be challenging. Negative spirals take an abundant amount of your energy, leaving you feeling exhausted and depleted with little room for calm. Sure, you can hash it out, or you can choose to take a break and breath, drink some water, sit down, rest, and acknowledge things are not going so well. If you are willing to embark in the grey zone of other options and problem-solving techniques, there are many ways to resolve issues.
Time to Heal
Giving yourself space to process thoughts and feelings to make better choices and have less reactive behavior gives you leeway for better problem-solving. It takes time, effort, and willingness to encounter less black-and-white thinking and move into the grey zone, where you welcome logical ideas with a more open mindset. Understanding that others need space to process thoughts and feelings grants both sides the grace to find the middle ground. Suppose we don’t resist the tendency to be defensive and ready to attack; in that case, we are part of long-lasting problems and have less resilience to bring about positive resolution and productive and effective change. We can’t hide, deny, cheat, or lie out of polarization.
Your whole health journey is striving for a healthy balance. It requires being more mindful of thought patterns and emotions than ever before as you enter the grey zone. I believe many people are suffering and out of balance, even if they don’t say so. Internal checks and balances can help you understand when to change the course of action. Even saying it out loud, I feel frustrated, and identifying the cause of the frustration is like giving yourself an internal heads-up. It could be time to take a break before thoughts and emotions escalate and eventually get out of control. Maybe taking a different approach will ease the tension. Instead of saying to yourself that “This is a complete failure,” say something like, “This is a work in progress,” and “I can find the answers to solve the problem.” In thought, you will become less rigid and open your mind to find those answers.
Every human being, whether you like them or not, needs validation. As humans, we are innately communal to some degree. However, some people prefer more remote and solitude than others. Finding what level of collaboration works for you can change throughout your life. We have severe societal problems that need attention, not more polarization. When you take time to listen and are willing to discuss the situation, both sides may find they are heard and able to reach a middle ground. There is a time and place for competition, but not every issue needs a winner. Sometimes both sides need to compromise to find some satisfaction in the results. It certainly is worth a try.
The thoughts expressed in this article are based on the authors personal experiences, research, and opinion.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis seek help locally
or visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help for more information.
I recently discovered a gem of a woman in Dr. Gladys McGarey. At 102 years young, and "Mother of Holistic Medicine" is a shining example of "A Well-Lived Life". In her recent book, I love how she uses the word "juice" to describe the creative life energy in all of us and speaks about "soul health". When I watched her interview on Portland, Oregon AMNW https://katu.com/amnw I became immediately attuned to her message. I am also a fan of her crown braid, and "wildly adventurous" style.
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