Are you a black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinker?
Black and white thinkers think in absolutes. Anything that’s not good, is bad. If it’s not perfect, it’s a disaster.
Here’s some examples of typical black and white thinking:
- She looks perfect. Look at me, I’m fat and ugly.
- I’ve been good with my eating all week, but because I had a slither of cake at work, I’m bad.
- If I go to the gym four times a week I’m good. If I miss a session, I’m bad.
- I thought that report was perfect, but my boss asked me to make a few changes. I can’t do anything right. My boss hates me.
Remind you of anyone you know?
When you’re a black and white thinker, you send yourself relentlessly into a space where if you don’t succeed, you fail. You judge yourself (and often others) on impossibly high standards.
When you set the bar so high, you set yourself up for failure. But failure isn’t acceptable, so you beat yourself up with criticism. And either give up wallowing in misery, or pushing yourself harder to succeed.
It’s a vicious cycle of unrealistic expectations, massive effort to get there, failure, and (my personal favourite) self-criticism.
On the surface, it may look like criticising yourself, pushing yourself extra hard helps you achieve your goals. But the life of a black and white thinker can be pretty dark.
Black and white thinkers are constantly stressed and on edge. They swing from good to bad at the drop of a hat, cycling through guilt and shame along the way.
In fact biologically, this cycle keeps black and white thinkers running at a higher level of anxiety than other people.
That’s because thinking in black and white triggers the flight or fight response; the biological response that’s meant to be triggered when we sense danger – to help us stay and fight, or run to safety.
The concerning thing about triggering this response on a regular basis means black and white thinkers stay at a higher level of physical arousal. And that takes extra energy.
When you’re in a flight or fight state, your system pumps your body with adrenaline to give you energy to run away, or to stay and fight.
From an evolutionary perspective, the fight or flight response is a survival technique, intended to be used only in life threatening situations. That’s because our body tires quickly when we’re in this state.
And if we’re overtired, our survival may be threatened.
But black and white thinkers can keep themselves at a slightly higher state of arousal 24/7. Because they only see the black when the chips are down, their body is cued to be constantly on the alert for danger. They’re constantly poised for action.
But fear not – it is possible to learn how to find shades of grey in situations that look black or white. To move from a rigid thinking style, to a more user-friendly, flexible thinking style.
It’s all about playing around with black and white to get some shades of grey in the spectrum.
You can do this by:
- Identifying a black situation
- Think about what white would look like
- Then focus on what a mid grey would look like
- There’s lots of shades between mid grey and black – pick one and consider what that situation or thought would be.
Here’s an example:
A black and white thinker when confronted with eating a piece of cake at a birthday celebration will typically tell themselves they can’t have any because cake is bad (black).
But if they don’t eat it they’re good (white).
So what does mid grey look like?
Maybe joining in on the social occasion is important too. Does that bring bad (and black) closer to grey?
Do they need to have the full slice, or can they slide the black into grey by asking for a small slice, or only eating half?
If they eat the cake – does that make them bad? Or does that make them human (and grey)?
Accepting yourself as human, with all the flaws and grey bits that come with being human is the key to moving from rigid black and white thinking, to flexible grey thinking.
And the good news?
Grey thinking settles down that flight or fight response. Life becomes less stressful, and easier.
And remember, there’s at least 50 shades of grey between black and white!
I think I am naturally a black and white thinker, even though I strive to be a grey thinker. Just yesterday a situation arose where I was far too harsh on myself so this really resonates. I’m working on it!!!! xx
Good for you, Kez! Instead of trying to go straight to mid grey, what do you think about starting with a shade or two back from black, and have a play with that?
Holy moly Kate – it’s like you wrote this about me! I’m my worst critique and am reminded daily by my partner or mum. What’s worse is I project my high expectations of myself on to others – it’s an ongoing dialogue to remind myself that if they don’t meet them, it’s not about me or personal (most of the time ;-)). Thank you for this, always so helpful to be reminded how to calm things down on the inside. S xx
Me too! If I miss a run I feel like my whole week doesn’t count. Seeing it all set out like this makes me realise how unhelpful that is. My mission this week is to introduce some grey thinking!
Ah Sarah . . . you sound like you are your own worst critique!
It definitely helps to take a step back doesn’t it, no matter how big or small the decision or situation. And for the record, I’d have the cake 😉
I’m with you. I ALWAYS have the cake!
I’ve been a black and white thinker for as long as I can remember. I know it’s something I need to work on. I’m tired of being tired, stressed and on edge.
Good for you, Beck.
I NEEEEEED to bring the grey into my life. I am all or nothing in everything I do. Thanks for the perspective. Bron x
You comment made me smile, Bron. Written like a true black-and-whiter! (A grey response would have been more like: I’d like to bring some grey into my life . . )
Thank you, Kate! I’m another person who needs to embrace the grey tones of life. And yes, eventually, in my hair.
I’ll leave the grey hair to you!