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How To Be Less Emotional : Black and White Thinking

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Black and white thinking is one of the main causes of emotional reactivity. When you learn to follow one rule with your language, you can learn to be less emotionally reactive- in this post I’ll show you how. 

What Is Black And White Thinking?

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When it comes to emotional reactivity, emotions are the match, the initial source of ignition, our habits, our self-care and problem solving skills might be the wood, what maintains the fire,  but how we think is like gasoline.  And there’s a certain type of thinking that’s especially explosive when it comes to emotional reactivity and that’s black and white thinking. 

Black and White thinking is when you take a situation and think about it in an extreme way, you push out all the nuance and turn it into something as intense as possible. 

Identifying Black and White Thinking

You can usually recognize it when you use words like “Always, Never, Perfect, Terrible, Everything, Everyone, Nothing, Nobody, Worst, or Best. The Arbinger Institute calls these “Horribilizations” You take something and horriblize it. 

Notice how in these situations, black and white thinking exaggerates the situation. 

A husband says to his wife: “You NEVER do the dishes! I ALWAYS have to clean up after you!”

Depressed Young Adult: “EVERYthing is awful. The world is a TERRIBLE place. Climate change is HOPELESS.  I’ll NEVER be able to succeed. I’m NO good at math”  

Someone at work: My boss is the WORST communicator. 

A young mother: “I’m just a TERRIBLE person” or “She has it ALL together, she’s such a SAINT”

Each time, the person takes a difficult situation and makes it horrible. They use the most extreme word. Never. Always. Everything. Hopeless. Terrible. 

The more extreme your thinking, the more intense your emotions will be, and the more likely you are to be depressed or anxious. But black and white thinking also makes you helpless to escape that depression or anxiety. And it’s a lie. When you use black and white thinking, you are usually distorting nuanced reality by ignoring the good and exaggerating the bad. You’re lying. 

So, Why Do We Do It?

If it’s so awful, why do we do it? 

You subconsciously like black and white thinking because it serves a function in the short term. And like a drug, it makes you suffer in the long term. So what function does it serve?

One- It justifies you– if your wifes does the dishes sometimes, but not often, why would you want to phrase that in the worst possible way ‘My wife NEVER does the dishes”?  To make yourself feel like the good guy and put her down. You’re making yourself feel better, by making the situation worse in the long run. 

If your boss has some skills, some strengths, some talents, but struggles to communicate in a few areas, why would you want to say that they’re TERRIBLE in EVERY area? Because then you don’t have to put in the effort to be assertive and communicate your needs and listen to theirs. Believing your boss is TERRIBLE is a mental habit to excuse yourself from work. 

If math is hard for you, why would you want to believe that it’s IMPOSSIBLE for you? Why would you want to lie to make a sincerely difficult situation harder? Because then you’re excused from trying, from putting in effort, from the difficulty of the hours of studying or the painful emotions of failing a test. Black and white thinking is an old habit that protects you from painful emotions like uncertainty and disappointment. 

When we exaggerate how bad things are it excuses us from action, creating the idea that we are helpless and therefore do not need to act. It helps us feel powerless, and thereby protects ourselves from feeling guilty or accountable.

Be honest with yourself. It kinda feels good when you can call up your bestie and tell them that you’ve had the worst day in the whole entire world, and they say “You poor thing”. And most of the time, we don’t even make that call, we just have that little internal dialog with ourselves. “You poor thing” we say to ourselves, and we kinda like it.  That vindication feels good. 

Now on a sidenote, there is a reason your brain made this fun little back-door excuse. And it’s connected to fear and the FFF response. When we are in danger, let’s say our ancestors were at war with another tribe, the FFF response shuts down nuance and options in our brain, we see the attacking tribe as being subhuman, as being terrible, as being awful human beings – black and white thinking makes it much simpler to fight back, to kill them, because we’re not thinking of them as humans with wives and children and parents with dreams and loves and hurts. They’re just simply “THE BAD GUYS”. In life threatening situations, black and white thinking may help us make quick and decisive decisions. Simplicity is easier than dealing with the nuanced complexity of reality. But since the vast majority of our day-to-day decisions aren’t life threatening, black and white thinking interferes with our emotional stability the rest of the time. 

If we want to be less emotionally reactive, we need to replace black and white thinking with something more helpful, and more honest. 

What To Do About It?

One Rule- honesty– you have to be willing to admit that Black and White thinking is a lie, and that you’re lying to yourself to excuse yourself from something. If you’re willing to be honest about that, then you can move on to the next steps

1. Notice yourself doing it, trigger words – 99% of the time, words like “Always” “Never” are not accurate. Do you have other words you use when you’re justifying yourself? Start to catch yourself doing it. Write a big post-it note somewhere you can see that has a list of words that are warning signs you’re slipping into black and white thinking and emotional reactivity.

2. Take a deep breath – slow yourself down

3. Name an emotion – the emotion might be real, but the thoughts aren’t. Say “I feel…followed by an emotion word. I feel angry. You’re not allowed to say “I feel like you’re making me angry. I feel like you ALWAYS attack me. I feel like you NEVER take out the trash. Those are lies because they’re thoughts, not feelings and they’re exaggerated. 3 words only. I feel…Emotion word. I feel angry- that’s honest.

4. Reframe the situation. speak in the gray. There might be a real problem that really needs to be solved, the emotion can motivate you to take action, but extreme thinking, black and white thinking will most likely interfere with your ability to solve the problem. So look for the gray. Here’s how.

a. Use BOTH – AND instead of extreme thinking.  This is an annoying therapist skill that’s actually super powerful. You can feel two emotions at the same time. You can have two nuanced truths that seem contradictory at the same time. 
i. When your boss miscommunicates a deadline to you, instead of thinking “He’s a terrible communicator!!” You could say: My boss didn’t communicate well AND he is also trying really hard to help our team succeed.

ii. I messed up. Instead of me being either a complete idiot or a perfect worker, I am both basically intelligent AND fallible at times. 

iii. I feel so sad about the death of my mother AND I feel relieved that I don’t have to be her caretaker anymore. 

iv. My wife is insensitive to me sometimes AND she also loves me a lot too. 

So that’s the skill of using both-and. The next skill to stop Black and White thinking is to 

b. Look for exceptions– look for counter examples, If I think “My wife NEVER does the dishes” look for a time that she did, or some other way she contributes. 

c. Or speak about one single situation. Be specific. Use a less extreme word. Instead of “My boss is a terrible communicator” say “My boss wasn’t clear about her expectations for this assignment” be specific. Instead of “everything is awful”, describe what specifically is awful. “She didn’t tell me the timeframe.” When we get specific, we can actually do something about a problem. “Hey boss, next time I need more clarity about deadlines.” 

5. Make sure to check for your own accountability. In the majority of situations, we are playing a role in the cycle. If there’s a communication problem at work, perhaps we need to work on using clarifying statements or being more assertive, if there’s a problem with chores in the marriage- we may need to consider how we’re contributing, or clarifying to household tasks, or stress levels, or being too busy, etc.

Remember, one of the main reasons people get depressed or anxious is how they perceive reality. When we are able to be more flexible and intentional and truthful in our perceptions we are often able to escape the extreme emotions and depression begins to lift. 

When you’ve been thinking in extremes for much of your life, It can be hard to catch yourself doing it, so working with a therapist can really help you notice and replace this type of thinking with something that’s way more emotionally stable. 

When it comes down to it, You can change your brain. You can improve your mood, and get better at feeling, I hope this helps, thanks for watching. 

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