How to Stop Black-or-White Thinking

 

Positively Present - Black and White

 

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!

 

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F.A.C.E. Your Feelings: How to Cope with Mixed Emotions


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On the last day of the year, I've found myself reflecting on the past twelve months and, in particular, the ebb and flow my relationships. While reflecting, I realized I was trying to fit my relationships (and people!) into neat little boxes, labeled "GOOD" or "BAD," and it just wasn't working out. Because, as I'm sure you know, relationships are complex. They don't always fit clearly into boxes. They can't always be labeled clearly.

My feelings about most people, even those I love dearly, are mixed. For someone like me, who really likes to identify and label things in order to better analyze and understand them, this can be tricky. So, I decided to do what I always do when confronted with trickiness: write about it! I sat down this morning to write about the idea of mixed feelings and realized, ultimately, that it doesn't have to be a negative thing. Sure, it would be great if we could identify every person in our lives as "good" or "bad" so that we'd know who to surround ourselves with, but life -- and people! -- don't work like that. 

Like it or not, mixed feelings are a part of relationships, so we might as well learn to deal with them the best we can! I came up with a little method I like to call F.A.C.E. that can help you (and me!) cope with the complicated mess of mixed feelings. This is especially useful for people you love and interact with often (as those are the people we often have the most complex relationships with!), but I bet it can work pretty well for new relationships as well as a way to figure out how you really feel about a person you're just getting to know! 

 

FIGURE OUT THE FEELINGS

First and foremost, you have to figure out what you're feeling! This may sound obvious, but when you spend a lot of time with someone or have known them for a long time, sometimes we don't even pay attention to how we feel about them. Figuring out precisely what you feel is essential for coping with the mixed emotions. There are many different ways to feel about others, but here's a list of some emotions you might consider while figuring out your feelings (note: lots of these words aren't technically considered emotions in the psychological sense, but I find these words helpful when trying to figure out feelings):

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Amusement
  • Anger
  • Awe
  • Bitterness
  • Bliss
  • Boredom
  • Calm
  • Comfort
  • Contentment
  • Desire
  • Disgust
  • Distain
  • Distrust
  • Envy
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Gratitude
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Hope
  • Hurt
  • Interest
  • Irritation
  • Jealousy
  • Joy
  • Kindness
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Peace
  • Pity
  • Pride
  • Rage
  • Relaxed
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Safe
  • Secure
  • Serenity
  • Shame
  • Surprise
  • Tenderness
  • Trust
  • Unsafe
  • Wonder

 

ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR EMOTIONS

Next, it's important to pay attention to what's happening when you're actually interacting with that person. It's one thing to sit down alone and consider how a person makes you feel, but it's quite another to tune into it in the moment. Here are three questions to consider when contemplating mixed emotions: 

  1. How do I feel when I think about spending time with them? 
  2. How do I feel while I'm spending time with them? 
  3. How do I feel after I've just spend time with them?

There is likely more than one answer to these questions depending on the day and circumstances, but paying attention to these three questions frequently will give you a better sense of how this person makes you feel overall and can clue you into nuances about the relationship that you might not have otherwise realized. 

 

CONSIDER YOUR OPTIONS

After you've given consideration to how you feel about the person generally and how you feel in specific situations, before, after, and during interactions with this person, now it's time to go a little further and consider the big question: So what? You've now got a pretty good idea of what you feel about this person, but now you have to consider what this means. Understanding the mixed feelings you have usually will lead to one of three conclusions: 

  1. This person is no good for me and I should spend less time with them. 
  2. This person is good for me and I should spend more time with them. 
  3. This person is both good and bad for me and I should be mindful of the time spent with them. 

Those are pretty much the options you have when dealing with a relationship, which leads us to the last step...

 

EMBRACE CHANGE OR ACCEPTANCE

Recognizing your options (see 1-3 above) doesn't mean that you're actually going to take action, which is where this next step comes in. You have two choices: embrace change (if necessary) or accept things as they are, for better or worse. Sometimes, after going through these steps, you might come to the conclusion that someone is no good for you but you still might want to spend lots of time with them. That's up to you, but if you choose that path, you must accept the consequences of it. On the flip side, if you find that change (spending more or less time with someone) is necessary, it's up to you to embrace -- and perhaps initiate -- that change. Whatever the situation, it generally comes down to one of two options: change or accept. 

 

Most of us probably run through the F.A.C.E. method in our subconscious without even realizing it, but taking the time to really deal with mixed emotions and actively choose an outcome is empowering, even if we don't always choose the thing that's best for us. There's something powerful about making a choice -- even the wrong one -- rather than just floating along and waiting for something to happen. Yes, there are two people in every relationship, but the only one you can control is yourself, so you might as well take charge of your feelings and actively make some choices, especially as we're heading into a new year! 

 

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Keeping the Peace: How to Discuss Tough Topics

Tough Conversations Advice

With the Thanksgiving holiday this week and the potential for gathering around tables with those who might not share the same political, religious, or cultural points of view, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic of talking with those who share different views. Conquering controversial topics — particularly with family — is not for the faint of heart, but I truly believe there's a way to stay positive, voice your opinion, and still keep the peace. 

Of course, if you’re dealing with someone who is violent, judgmental, or narrow-minded, you’re going to have a hard time discussing tough topics with them. However, if you can find people who are open-minded and willing to listen and talk about contentious issues, it’s possible to share your beliefs in positive ways. 

So, how do you go about sharing your opinions without putting other people off? Here are some of the best ideas I’ve found (after doing lots of research and trying them out for myself!) for talking about your beliefs with those who don’t share them.

 

KNOW WHAT YOU BELIEVE.

It might sound obvious, but a lot people aren’t truly certain about what they believe. Many people flip-flop on certain issues, have beliefs based on one-off op-ed pieces (rather than facts), or base beliefs on those held by those surrounding them. Before getting into any serious discussion (especially with people with opposing views), do your research  both the fact checking and the soul-searching kind. Carefully consider the issue, taking stock of what you know and what you might not know.

Just as importantly, consider how you feel really about it. It's incredibly tempting to jump onto the bandwagons, to join groups, and to identify with the labels, but remember: you are complex human being with unique experiences, insights, and ideas. We all want to belong, but think carefully about what beliefs you align yourself with. Before declaring, “I’m a _________________,” or “I believe in _________________,” ask yourself if that’s 100% true. It may very well be true, but it’s important to check in with yourself and make sure that you not your peers, not your family, not a portion of society you aspire to be like  do, in fact, hold these beliefs.

Also, it’s important to keep checking in with yourself periodically to see if you still hold the beliefs. We are ever evolving, changing creatures and what you believe at one point in your life may not be what you believe later. Because sometimes we get lazy, we might cling to beliefs we’ve had for a long time because we think we still believe them, not because we actually do.

 

SCRUTINIZE YOUR SOURCES.

It is so very, very important to check your sources, and then check them again. So many people hold — and speak about  beliefs not based on facts. With the incredible rise of the Internet, you’re able to read this article and countless other things that literally anyone can post online. Sometimes this is amazing — different viewpoints!  unique perspectives! — and sometimes this is just insane — fake news sites created just to get clicks, opinion pieces skewed with untrue claims, etc.

Not only is important to make sure the facts you have are, indeed, facts, but it’s important to be aware of how greatly biased the Internet is. The Internet helps us take sides. We’re encouraged — by the sheer nature of how the Internet is set up — to cultivate either/or mindsets.

Every day we are given a choice to pick one thing or the other: like or dislike this post, agree or disagree with that article. Social media, while it does allow for comments and more lengthy explorations into "gray" territories, often encourages us to choose one thing over the other, usually in a yes-or-no, black-or-white dichotomy.

And here’s the scariest part: what we choose is constantly reinforced with algorithms designed to personalize our content. We are given more content that aligns with what we like, less that showcases what we don’t like. Most of us don’t actively realize this, so it starts to seem like everyone and everything supports our views.

Unlike in the old days, when everyone saw the same images on TV and then disagreed or agreed with those images, we’re now shown images that support the ideas we’ve told the Internet we like. What we see online is meant to appeal to us — which can definitely be nice sometimes — but this is creating little individual bubbles where we’re all seeing the things we want to see, having our beliefs and preferences reinforced (often without even seeing information from the other side).

Do your best to go out of your way to find new sources, to find unbiased articles, to even reach out to those who hold opposing views and ask them for their thoughts.

 

CHANNEL YOUR COURAGE.

Speaking up about the things you believe in with someone who doesn’t share your perspective can be scary, which is why you're going to need to channel your courage. Anyone who has ever had to have a difficult conversation — a break-up, a resignation, etc. — knows just how much courage is required for talking about tough topics. 

When facing challenging conversations, remind yourself that fear (and anger...) is just a chemical reaction going on inside of you. For some reason, I've always found it helpful to bring to mind the biological responses of emotion to remind me that feelings of fear are both natural and combatable

Just because you are afraid to do something doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. In fact, it's often a sign that something is important — particularly when talking about conversations, not phobia-style fears. When beginning an important conversation, take a deep breath, remind yourself of the knowledge you possess (you've done your research!), and understand that, even though a conversation might be difficult, you are doing the right thing by making an effort to communicate openly and honestly with those you know. 

 

BE CLEAR AND HONEST.

When it comes to talking about difficult topics or beliefs, we don't always begin the conversation by being clear and honest. Too often, we are driven by strong emotions and triggered by the words of someone else rather that striving to be levelheaded and thoughtful in what we say. I know this is much easier said than done, but imagine what it would be like if you opened up a conversation like this:

“Hey, I know we have totally different views on this issue, but I’d really like to talk about it. I’m going to do my best to share my point of view calmly, and to listen and keep an open mind to what you have to say. I know neither of us will probably change our minds on this issue, but I think it’s important for us to should talk about it.”

When starting a conversation with someone of a different political background or belief, it can be helpful to make it clear that you’re not necessarily trying to change their mind. One of the reasons we have such heated debates about politics is because it often feels like the opposing side is saying, “You’re wrong. Here’s why.”

Or, if you are trying to change someone’s mind, what if you were honest about it? You could say something like, “You know I feel really passionately about this topic. It’s very important to me, and I’d really love it if I could change your mind about it so that you could see it the way I do. I know that might not be possible, but would you be willing to listen to what I have to say? After I share my thoughts, I’ll be more than happy to listen to your point of view, too.”

The key takeaway from this point is this: you’re never going to transform someone else’s mindset through trickery, bullying, or manipulation. (Okay, you might be able to, but is that the kind “win” you want?) You’ll get a lot farther — and probably have a more positive conversation — if you’re honest and clear about what you want to talk about and what your end goal for the conversation is.

 

SPEAK WITH COMPASSION.

Compassion is a word we hear often, but its actual definition isn’t always clear. Compassion is about recognizing another's pain and desiring to alleviate it in some way (regardless of whether or not you agree with that person's beliefs).

When you’re passionate about a topic, it can be hard to channel compassion in the way you speak and react, but it’s important to do so  not only for the other person’s benefit, but for your own mental state as well.

In the midst of talking about the tough stuff, we need compassion  especially for those who display aggressive, angry, and hateful behavior. Without compassion, we’ll never be able to find our way in this shadowy, complex jungle of difficult discourse. Compassion is our flashlight in the dark. It, alone, is not going to get us from point A to point B, but it sure as hell is going to make the path easier to see.

As I wrote in my article on compassion, defending what you believe and having compassion for those who think differently are not mutually exclusive. You can be passionate and compassionate. Remember this when you’re speaking with someone who has completely different views and you’re struggling with compassion. (Also, try your best to go into the conversation with a compassionate mindset!)

 

LISTEN – REALLY LISTEN.

Listening isn’t just about opening your ears to the sounds coming from someone else’s mouth. It’s also about paying attention to body language, tone, facial expression. It’s also about looking past the words and considering what someone might actually mean, instead of just focusing on what they’re saying. Often, below the surface, it's clear that "I'm aligned with [insert political party here]" really means "[a specific value] is really important to me and [political party of choice] really seems to represent that."

Will it be challenging to listen to other people talk passionately about their beliefs that differ completely from your own? You bet. But, if you want people to be tolerant and accepting of your views, you have to show others the same courteousness. If you want people to listen to you, you must listen to them. And when I say really listen, I mean it. It’s tempting to assume you know what someone is going to say or to take a stand on it before words have even been uttered, but don't allow yourself to make assumptions. Listen with your ears, watch with your eyes, and pay attention with your mind. 

Also, even if others' beliefs might sound crazy to you, don’t punish them for their honesty. Never forget that listening isn’t just about opening your ears — it’s about opening your mind as well. The point of talking about difficult issues with someone of differing beliefs is to open the lines of communication. 

 

RESPECT ALL BOUNDARIES.

Not everyone is going to want to have difficult discussions with you, and that’s okay. It may be frustrating not to be able to talk to people about what you want to talk about, but it’s important to respect others’ boundaries. If someone makes it clear that they don't want to talk to you about an issue, respect that. (Also, consider finding some people who do want to talk to you.)

Here are some other times you might want to respect boundaries — your own and those of the people around you — and not bring up, or keep talking about, tough topics:

 

  • When the other person is emotionally unready or unwilling to hear what you have to say. This isn’t to say you can’t talk about it at some point, but assess the emotional state of others and determine if it might be better to choose a different time to talk. Also, on a less dramatic scale, consider the general emotional state of yourself and the other person. If you (or they) had a terrible, long day at work, maybe it’s not the best time to get into a heated debate.

 

  • When violent acts might be committed against you. This is not a reason for a whole group to be quiet (if it were, we’d still have horrific institutions like slavery), but in one-on-one situations where you would be in great physical or emotional danger if you were to speak your mind about a certain topic, it’s best to remain quiet until you can find a way to communicate without harm coming to you or someone else. Please be safe when it comes to speaking up.

 

  • When you’ve honestly, openly stated your beliefs with kindness and compassion, and you’re receiving only hatred, judgment, and accusations in return. Some people are just not open to listening and talking. This is unfortunate, and it can be painful if it's someone you love, but it’s just the way it goes. Once you’ve said what you wanted to say, repeating it over and over (however nicely!) will no longer be productive.

 

  • When a large group of people is ganging up on you. Again, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t speak your mind, but sometimes it’s better to speak up when you either (a) have at least one person on your side or (b) can have a one-on-one with individuals of the group, instead of speaking to the group as a whole.

 

Regardless of what you’re talking about — or who you’re speaking to  it’s important not only to respect others’ boundaries, but to take care of your own boundaries as well. If you’re unsure about whether or not to keep talking, ask, “Would you like to keep talking about this topic?” If you’ve gotten to a point where your own boundaries are being threatened, say, “I’m glad we were able to start this conversation, but I feel it is no longer productive, and I think we should stop talking about it for now.” 

 

REINFORCE IT WITH ACTION.

Actions speak louder than words, they say, and it really is true. You can talk yourself blue in the face about what you believe in, but if you don’t support those words with actions, it’s going to be much less likely that people will take you, and your beliefs, seriously. Here a few ideas for how you can take positive action on your beliefs:

 

  • Donate to a cause that supports what you believe in
  • Volunteer for an organization you support
  • Share (legitimate, fact-based) information on social media
  • Offer to organize an event or fundraiser for a cause
  • Watch a film about the topic with someone who opposes it
  • Research the issue and consider new ways to offer help
  • Give (well-researched) books on issues you support to skeptics
  • Vote for the people who support what you believe
  • Call Senators / people in Congress and ask for change
  • Ask experts on the issues for ideas for how to help
  • Join local (or online) groups who share your beliefs
  • Read up on what others are saying (and gather facts!)
  • Shop at stores that uphold your beliefs (don't know? ask!)

 

It may seem like this action-taking isn’t a necessary step to talking about what you believe in, but it’s actually essential. Anyone can say they believe in anything, but to really have those beliefs heard (and have them matter), action is necessary. You might also want to see if you can have someone with opposing views take part in the action in some way. Sometimes people don’t realize what they believe until they see a situation for themselves.