“He’s a complete loser.”
“She always gets everything she wants.”
At times, do you make extreme statements like these? Do you view things in all-or-nothing terms? If so, how does this habit affect your life? Do you have a hunch that it’s getting in the way of your happiness, productivity, relationships, or peace of mind?
Why do some of us engage in black-and-white thinking? One reason stems from our brains, which are meaning-making machines. It can feel to us as if compartmentalizing ourselves, other people, situations, countries, ethnicities, genders, professions, etc. will make things clearer, due to our brain’s wish to organize,
The truth is that black-and-white thinking typically does not support our well-being but is instead an insidious process by which we can end up thinking that either everything is going wonderfully or everything is lost. Neither scenario is realistic, so in holding these viewpoints we are at odds with reality, which is, of course, where we need to function, When we’re engaged in black-and-white thinking, we don’t appreciate the nuances or possibilities contained within a situation, and thus we limit ourselves unnecessarily.
In addition, when we take such an absolute stance regarding an issue, we may be inclined to act out in destructive ways. For instance, if we believe that we are terrible people, we might drink excessively, act violently, or fall in a deep depression in attempts to deal with our resultant intolerable feelings about ourselves.
On the other hand, if we carry the arrogant view that we and our opinion are perfect and would not benefit from change, we aren’t likely to take steps to alter those aspects of ourselves that could use improvement. We might alienate other people who are trying to reason with us. Heaven forbid that they should try to point out our shortcomings, as this will probably be met with anger, disdain, or a counterattack by us.
In such a state of rage, fear, overwhelm, or self-condemnation, we lose our ability to think clearly. Thus, in order to reduce our level of anxiety, begin to see the nuances in situations, and act towards others and ourselves in more effective ways, we might take some tips from the practice of dialectical thinking.
Dialectical thinking entails that we practice the beliefs that:
- A situation can be looked at in more than one way.
- There can be more than one solution to a problem.
- Two people can see the same situation differently, and both people can be right.
- Black-and-white terms such as “always”, “never”, and “either-or” can be substituted by “frequently”, “at times”, or “seldom”.
- We don’t need to know absolutely everything about a situation. We can tolerate not knowing some things.
- We can prefer that things would stay just as they are and also accept that change must occur.
- We can understand why someone might ask us to to do something and also say no to the request.
- We can enjoy solitude at times and also miss being with other people.
- We can have a great time at a party and also yearn to be at home alone watching a movie.
- We can love someone and also be upset with them.
- We use phrases that take responsibility for our emotions such as “I feel…” rather than labeling the other person with “You are…”
- We don’t assume that we know how someone else feels or thinks. We look for supporting evidence and ask clarifying questions.
- We can be kind and also set clear boundaries.
- We can accept ourselves as we are and also want to change some things about ourselves.
- We can not feel like doing something and be willing to do it anyway.
- We can not know if we’re able to to accomplish a task and be willing to give it a shot anyway.
- We can appreciate both the similarities and differences between ourselves and other people.
- We can validate why someone else might feel a certain way (i.e., enraged) and also tell them that hitting us is not acceptable.
- We can allow ourselves to experience a powerful emotion and also control our behavior.
- We can share certain secrets with people and keep other secrets to ourselves.
- We can allocate time to doing activities we need to do and also find time to do things we want to do.
Over time, practicing dialectical thinking and acting strengthens our ability to:
Anticipate various ways that a particular scenario may play out
Consider other people’s points of view
Resist speaking and acting impulsively
Make wise decisions, having carefully considered the pros and cons
Have patience, curiosity, tolerance, and humility
Have more harmonious relationships with other people and ourselves
Ultimately, we find ourselves living more and more of the time in a centered, balanced, and wise manner, able to maintain our emotional balance regardless of our situation. To do so, we will need to let go of our need to be right, in control, and in the know – but given that we often cannot attain these desires anyway, what are we really relinquishing? Plus, we can take comfort from the dialectical thinking tenet that we can be afraid to change and yet be willing to do so.