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How ‘Black-And-White Thinking’ Shapes Your View of the World

Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s husband.

My husband used to have only two categories when he reacted to something: It was fabulous or it was wrecked. There was nothing in-between. If he cooked a dinner and I said it was “OK,” he heard “wrecked.” If I said “good,” he heard “wrecked.” Only the most superlative of adjectives would convince him that I appreciated his efforts.

Of course, this was a holdover from his childhood, one called “black-and-white thinking” or “all-or-nothing” thinking. It is a kind of cognitive distortion — a skewed way of thinking that does not represent reality. has this to say about the subject:

“A cognitive distortion is an automatic way of repeatedly interpreting a situation that causes us to not consider other ways of thinking about it. When we over-rely on cognitive distortions, we usually interpret events in such a way that fuels emotions such as anxiety, depression, or anger. All-or-nothing thinking is one such distortion.

All-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in extremes. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was totally good or totally bad. If you are not perfect, then you are a failure. This binary way of thinking does not account for shades of gray, and can be responsible for a great deal of negative evaluations of yourself and others.”

Indeed, my husband was prone to depression and thinking poorly of himself. He would never be as good as his brother, as successful as his father and mother, as artistic or musical or smart as he wanted to be.

Fortunately, he eventually recovered from this. It’s really tiring to keep thinking of better and better ways to describe dinner. Now I can give accurate feedback, like “satisfying,” or “good enough.” Not everything has to be fantastic.

I must admit I share in this kind of cognitive distortion. I think it may go with bipolar disorder, which, after all, includes swings from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. But some people attribute it to my having been a Girl Scout or making straight-A’s in school. What I remember is learning it from my parents. When a cousin screwed up, for example, they would say with a tone of disgust, “Well, I guess some people have to learn from their mistakes.” What I heard was that some people — the good, smart people — didn’t have to learn from their mistakes because they didn’t make mistakes. It was a perfect setup for making a little girl try to be perfect.

Later in life, I found some flaws in that line of thought. My first experience with a D grade came in high school, in Enriched Geometry. The “Enriched” part was having to do three-column proofs instead of two-column proofs, with the third column being the name or number of the theorem of corollary you were using. I thought that was silly. You could always look up the theorem or corollary if you really needed to know it. As long as you knew how it worked, I thought, that should be enough. So, I didn’t memorize them and I got a D. (Many years later, I was able to hang five pictures, four in a square and one in the middle, which proved to me that I did indeed know enough geometry to get by, theorems and corollaries or not.)

I also learned that, according to my parents, perfection was only for me, not for other people. When some work friends of mine started living together, I expected my parents to freak at the sinfulness. They didn’t. But when I did the same thing, they refused even to enter the house.

I know that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) specializes in counteracting distorted ways of thinking, and maybe it would have helped me (or my husband) get over it more quickly or efficiently. But the lesson I eventually learned was that I could be not-perfect and it wouldn’t destroy me. I hung those pictures. I moved on from that relationship and my parents accepted me. I did end up in a job (editing) that requires one to be as nearly perfect as one can regarding as many details as possible, and I suppose that’s an example of turning a negative into a positive.

But if – that is, when – I make a mistake or miss perfection by however wide a margin, my thinking isn’t so disordered that I assume I’m a failure. Black-and-white has been replaced by all manner of shades of gray. That’s really where everyone lives.

Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

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