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June’s theme is BALANCE. What better way to seek balance than embracing the gray area between black and white thinking?
I struggle a lot with Black and White thinking, which I believe is emphasized by my experience with Complex PTSD. According to this 2014 article in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, people who experience Complex PTSD “report a consistent self-concept, it just happens to be one that is ‘consistently negative’.” If you couldn’t tell from my previous posts on Changing the Stories We Tell Ourselves and Negative Self-Talk, I both struggle with a consistently negative self-concept and I am actively invested in learning how to adapt a positive one! For this reason, I resonated with a Reddit post titled “My C-PTSD Homework: Black and White Thinking,” which breaks down the Complex PTSD brain’s rationale for turning to dualistic thinking. Note how the writer acknowledges the short term and long term effects of black and white thinking:
Short-term benefit: Creates an artificial sense of control/security/safety by eliminating options and accepting the worst instead of hoping for something else. Avoids letdown, avoids surprises.
Origin of the behavior: Maladaptive coping mechanism commonly seen in folks who’ve spent extended periods of life unable to control their circumstances.
Long-term consequences: Strong insecurities that need constant reassurance, missed opportunities, narrow scope, inability to sit with uncertainty, habitual assumptions of worst-case-scenario, inability to tolerate our own mistakes without deciding we’re total failures. Dualistic thinking can spiral and single-handedly cause emotional flashbacks.
While black and white thinking provides a false logic that feels comforting at the time, it can actually make us feel worse in the long run.
Whether or not you experience Complex PTSD, anxiety, depression, or chronic stresses, I am willing to bet that you have struggled with black and white thinking at one point or another. So, I did what I do best and researched three practical ways we can all apply frames of logic to reach those healthier gray areas and develop more positive self-conceptions.
In order to learn about modifying self-perception, I started by learning a little about perception in general. Amy Herman, the creator of the Art of Perception program and author of Visual Intelligence, offers a fascinating take on perception in her Good Life podcast interview, “How to See and Say What Really Matters.” As a part of her program, Herman trains medical providers, law enforcement, and FBI agents in the art of perception by having them study fine art in a museum. One frame she teaches is the pertinent negative, which is a method that medical providers use to diagnose patients by ruling out symptoms. Basically, when a physician asks a patient if they are experiencing symptoms A, B, or C, the physician then records the negative answers (“patient is not experiencing symptom A, B, or C”) versus simply writing “exam was normal.” Herman uses the example of testing a patient for pneumonia: if pneumonia is diagnosed through a combination of three symptoms, but a patient has only 2 of the 3 symptoms, they cannot have pneumonia.
Eric Ravenscraft provides a guide for evaluating self-perfection in his article “How to Change Your Self-Perception to Leverage Your Hidden Strengths.” He encourages us be honest with ourselves, particularly around jumping to black and white conclusions. I was drawn to his suggestion to “Identify your Own Self-Image Fallacies.” Ravenscraft writes that “Often, we have self-perception problems because our emotions or misconceptions lead us to false conclusions,” including all-or-nothing mentalities such as “I screwed up, so I am a screw up.” Here are two examples of logical fallacies I fall into: “Person X didn’t tell me that I did a good job, so I must have done a bad job” and “I had another flashback or high pain day, so I must not be healing.”
Dr. John D. Grohol defines cognitive distortion as follows: “Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions—telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.” So, what do we do about it? Summer Beretsky writes in “Cognitive Distortion: How Does Black-and-White Thinking Hurt Us?” that “Catching yourself using dichotomous thinking (and correcting yourself) can transform an unrealistic thought into a more truthful (and probably less stress-inducing) one.” According to Beretsky, we often reach for polarized descriptions when we struggle to describe the gray area we may actually be occupying. Think of how often you’ve said “I’m starving” or “I’m exhausted” when you perhaps were really feeling hungry and sleepy.
Now that you know a few logical frameworks that disprove black and white thinking, let’s practice applying them!
Identify the Pertinent Negative
If you catch yourself spinning out in anxious thoughts and worries, you might want to apply the pertinent negative. To do this, recognize what literally would have to take place in order for your worry to actually manifest. Let’s use the example I mentioned above: you feel worried that your boss will fire you because they didn’t praise you for a completing an assignment.
If you’re into the medical analogy Herman uses, identify the “symptoms” that would be required before you would lose your job. This might include repeatedly missing deadlines or submitting subpar work. If you can answer yes to questions like “Did you complete the task to the best of your abilities?” and “Has your boss approved of similar tasks you’ve completed?,” then we can assume you are missing the pertinent negative symptoms required to be fired. In fact, remembering that you were hired because of your skillset in the first place and remembering that your boss usually praises you in person rather than over email can help you to feel even calmer with being in a gray area until your next meeting (where they will likely praise you for your work!).
Recognize Logical Fallacies
Catch yourself when you’re using all-or-nothing and cause-and-effect thinking. If you’re feeling anxious or upset, you should again remember what you actually know to be true. The example listed above relies on a false conclusion: Because they didn’t tell me I did a good job, my boss will fire me. However, there are many reasons why a boss might not have told an employee that she did a good job: they planned to say it in person, they assumed it was implied, they are so swamped with other things that they haven’t yet gotten to reply, etc. Thus, we undermine the false logic of the belief. We replace that false belief with a new belief, such as “I cannot be sure of my boss’s thoughts, but I do know for sure that I applied my knowledge and completed the task well.” Remember that your behavior can actually influence your perception, so literally rewrite that logical fallacy and try to actively believe the valid example you create.
Find the Middle Ground in Cognitive Distortion
Recognize when you are using dichotomous language, such as always, never, can’t, or adjectives that fall on one side of a polarization, such as bad, good, the worst, terrible, etc. If you feel like you’re using dichotomous language, use Beretsky’s suggestion and try to identify a phrase that more accurately represents how you feel. Instead of saying “I completely failed that assignment,” try saying “Even though it may not have been the absolute best thing I ever produced, I still did a perfectly fine job on that assignment.” Remember that we might tend to lean more towards a polarized term to describe our feelings because it seems more interesting and we want people to validate our experiences (Beretsky). It is okay to say that you did “perfectly fine” instead of awesome!
Bonus: Ask a Trusted Outsider
Despite our best intentions, our anxiety or worrying or consistently negative self-perception sometimes makes it difficult to see gray area of a situation. When this happens, we can reach out and ask a trusted friend or colleague or therapist to help us identify the gray area in the problem at hand. When I ask for an outside perspective, I first tell the person how I feel and what my worries are, and then I ask them for specific feedback, such as “what would you do if you were in my situation?” or “can you help me to compile a list of logical reasons why my fears are unfounded?” You can even ask your trusted outsider to help you identify the pertinent negative, logical fallacy, or cognitive distortion and to develop an alternative mantra or affirmation sentence you can tell yourself.
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.