It's normal for us to want to categorizing things, to label them so we might make sense of them, but as soon as we start identifying something — as good, bad, or any other descriptor — we're limiting our understanding of the thing. (Yes, there are quite a few things that are easily and unequivocally defined, but the list of such things is likely shorter than you'd think.) Attempts to label or categorize are attempts to understand, to provide clarity for ourselves in a world that often doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But, unfortunately, these sense-striving attempts often take people away from common sense, leading them down an all-or-nothing path that ultimately limits understanding.
If we truly want to understand someone or something, we're going to have to make some effort because, like it or not, our minds just want it to be easy. Our minds want quick and easy answers and, tempting as those might be, they're not truth. Some, admittedly, would rather have a false sense of understanding than truth, but, since you're reading this, I assume you're trying your best to have an honest understanding of the world (or, at least as honest as our little human brains can make it, given our many mental and emotional limitations). So if you really want to do your best to avoid all-or-nothing thinking, to resist the temptation to label something black or white rather than looking for the shades of gray, here are some ways to combat that natural urge to take something and paint it a single color:
- Open your mind to new ideas. Keeping an open mind seems like an obvious first step, but it's not always (in fact, it's rarely) our default mode, particularly as we get older and have experience and feel as if we know what something might be like. Not only should you strive to keep your mind open to ideas when discussing a specific topic, but it's also important to try keeping an open mind generally, as it'll help you hone your open-mindedness skills. When you strive to remain open-minded, you're likely to perceive a situation as it is rather than how you think it should be. Of course, we're all doing the best we can and we're limited by what we already know, but the more you practice seeing the world from different perspectives, trying to put yourself in others' shoes, and attempting to be mindful of the world around you, the easier it will become to keep an open mind.
- Let go of your expectations. Expectations are one of the main reasons all-or-nothing thinking happens. We think something "should" be a certain way, so we're either eager to accept the situation as normal when it happens as expected or we're quickly disappointed when the situation doesn't meet expectations. Letting go of expectations is one of the keys to ridding your mind of black-or-white thinking. Expectations — those little "should" and "should nots" in your mind — often force you to think in all-or-nothing. They set you up for mistakes, for assigning meaning where there might be none, for making judgments without truth or wisdom. Releasing expectations (particularly related to experiences you've had many times before) is a challenge, but it's a vital aspect of quelling black-or-white notions.
- Look for the myriad of colors. It's tempting to fall victim to seeing things in black or white, which is why we must practice being vigilant in looking for the various hues and shades of every person, situation, or idea we encounter. It's important to constantly remind yourself that there many different ways of looking at whatever situation you're in. One way to keep this in mind is by practicing with an everyday object. Take, for example, the sky. Try looking at it from different points of view — sitting on the ground, standing, atop a roof, from your car window. It's all the same sky and, while it's likely to look relatively the same regardless of where you are, there are differences you'll notice based on where you are. Likewise, try looking at the colors of a cloud. At first glance, it will look white, but if you look closely, you'll see shades of gray and pink and yellow. Try to remind yourself of the sky and the cloud when you encounter something you feel all-or-nothing about. Consider your perspective. Consider looking more closely.
- Try to see things as they are. Much as we might hate to admit it, most of us tend to see things the way we want to see them rather than the way they actually are. This distorted thinking causes us to see the "black" or "white" in a situation not because it is clearly one color, but because we want it to be that way. After all, it's much easier to understand "black" than it is to understand "dark gray with a hint of blue that looks somewhat purple in the right light." So we try to make it easy on ourselves. That's fine for certain things in which a quick decision is necessary — like determining if a stove is too hot to touch — but when it comes to understanding complex topics, such snap judgments won't benefit us in the long run if we're seeking truth. You're much more likely to avoid extreme thinking if you do your best to look at how things are rather than how you'd like them to be. Objectivity is a skill and it's not an easy one to master, but the more you practice, the better you'll become at seeing something's true colors.
- Avoid labeling with a single word. When you think of something in terms of one word, you're limiting it immediately. Think about it like this: if someone asks how your day is, you usually respond with words like "Good!" or "Terrible," but neither of those words are likely to accurately describe the entire day. Even the worst days have decent moments and even the best days have their struggles. Recognizing that everyday is more than "good" or "bad" is a great way to start realizing that situations, just like days, are nearly always more complex than a single descriptive phrase. Do your best to start describing things, like your day, in detail, and you'll be practicing the act of avoiding one-word labels that hinder open-minded thinking.
Combatting black-or-white thinking is challenging, but with these tips — and lots of practice — hopefully we can all learn to focus a little bit more on the nuances of ideas, situations, and people and move away from the limitations of an all-or-nothing mentality. Let me know in the comments below if you have any additional tips for conquering black-or-white thinking!