I first encountered the phrase “black and white thinking” a couple of years ago when I met with someone at the local Anxiety Disorders Association prior to starting any programming, exercises or medication. This was probably half a decade ago now, and I remember sitting in a very welcoming lady’s office and noticing that despite probably being well into her fifties, she had one of the prettiest, most inviting faces I’d ever seen, as well as a head of beautiful brown curls. Her face was etched with countless lines, but all I remember seeing in it was kindness and beauty. The purpose of my visit at this point was, after a referral from my doctor, to have a discussion to see what type of anxiety disorder I had. Social? Panic? Generalised? I don’t remember much of what was said, but I do remember her opening a book at a page listing a series of symptoms and feelings, and asking me which I related to. I remember bursting into tears when I realised my life was filled with every single thing on the list, and feeling like it was complete and utter confirmation that I was thoroughly flawed. Broken. I wasn’t able to finish the assessment, and I vowed never to go back—stepping foot inside that building again would be a reminder that I was fundamentally wrong, and I knew if I stayed out, I could pretend. I could do it by myself.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I did end up back in that very same building, taking that very same assessment. I’d done what I could on my own—set up and near-completed a list of everything I was ever afraid of (then, in true INFJ fashion, made another one!), tackled fears head-on (even if they resulted in various instances of throwing up or sobbing my heart out feeling my efforts weren’t good enough), but I still had Serious Issues. We could go back for hours talking about where they came from, but the point was they were still there. At this point, I went through the program. I started counselling and medication and I started doing my homework. I did a lot of reading and a lot of learning, not on how to “conquer” anxiety, because I think I’ll always be a worrier, but how to manage the destructive thoughts and feelings that had buried themselves so deeply into my skin that they’d become part of my identity.
My then-boyfriend broke up with me several times over anxiety-related issues. Each time I felt once again that I wasn’t good enough, and that I had to do better, be more, in order to be worthy of being wanted. I felt like I had to prove myself for two whole years, but looking back, I’m glad things unfolded the way they did. Even if the motivation at the time was fuelled by insecurity, being forced to learn independence and how to manage my thoughts made me strong enough to accept the final breakup when it did happen. I’d learned I needed—and deserved—more than always having to prove myself and beg desperately simply to feel wanted.
That was a tangent, but it leads me back to the idea of black and white thinking. Throughout all that, I was taught that it was a terrible thing, and that it was part of my anxiety that had to be eliminated. Yes, I did learn that sometimes, not being able to see the in-between can blind you to the best solution. It’s horribly self-centred of me to believe that there are only two ways of seeing things and that anything else is completely invalid, but at the same time, I hate the idea of wasting a single day on things that don’t align with what life should be. Trivialities, chores, arguments, Facebook… we have one life, and each day is falling away from us faster and faster as we get older. We don’t know how many we have left. We hope there’ll be lots, but there are no guarantees. None. So on one hand, I do acknowledge that being too focused on not wasting time prevents you from giving time to situations when that’s exactly the thing that others involved may expect or need—but on the other, perhaps more dominant hand, being able to quickly see how things are, whether or not they line up with how they should be, and make an immediate call to action to improve them results in more time being spent on the things that matter. I realise that not everyone operates this way, and I acknowledge the value in devoting time to truly exploring the best way forward. I just have an unequivocable need to bridge any discrepancy between how things are and how they’re meant to be as quickly as possible, so as to make the most of however many moments we’re given on this planet.
I’m not just talking about times of conflict. I’m talking about goals in life, too. I honestly think if I hadn’t put everything out there for the world to see, I would have had no reason to remain accountable or take action, and I would probably still be huddled away in my cubicle at lunchtime so inwardly full of dreams and so outwardly terrified of judgment and failure. What a waste of this gift of time. When I first met AC, I saw someone passionate about music. Someone who’d begun with the same dream but had been as scared as I was, who’d taken the leap into performing and a year later, fronted a band, had written dozens of songs, and had turned that dream into reality. I wished desperately for someone I might be able to begin the same journey with, and when he was actually open to starting a band with me, my brain quickly weighed out the options in a flash: fight or flight. This was my option to fight the fear that had kept me off stage for nigh on a decade, so I grabbed onto it tightly, all the while counting my lucky stars for the opportunity. That night, I sang something, and made him face the other direction I was so nervous. But a few hours later, we were singing together, and I’d decided we were going to perform publicly in two weeks’ time. I remember him telling me it didn’t have to be so soon, that I could take my time and ease into it. And I remember saying that as scared as I was, it was something I wanted to be able to do, and there was no point wasting any more months being afraid when the opportunity to just do it was staring me in the face. The thing is, opportunities are all around us. If you don’t like something about your life, you have every power to change it. All you have to do is decide to, and take action. It’s been almost three months since we started our little duo, and I’ve got a log of six performance diaries already, music videos of us on YouTube, a rather official looking Facebook page, and photos of myself actually enjoying being on stage. Three months, and already so very much closer to where I want to be—all because of black and white thinking.
I’m trying to walk the line between what I believe to be the benefits of black and white thinking and what others around me may need. Do I try to convince them of my rationale? I think any time someone tries to get someone to see things their way, if it’s done with the intention of bettering things, practices, thoughts or processes, it’s almost a crime not to—only when one tries to convince purely for the sake of being right is the endeavour wrongly entered into. But I have to respect that other people’s methods and ways of doing things are just as valid to them as mine are to me. It’s a strange balancing act, but I had to put it out there. If there’s a situation, a goal, or a life you want to be leading and aren’t, whether it’s ten minutes from the present or ten years away, realizing the discrepancy between what you’re actually doing right now and whether or not it’s going to get you where you want to be can be an immediate call back to the right direction. Things can be as simple as switching your mindset; breaking the cycle of immediate emotion and focusing instead on how your current actions are affecting the big picture. Life is finite, and that’s a scary thought. Why fill any period of time with grey when it could be filled with technicolour?
Hi Emily…great post! I enjoy your introspection and your willingness to live an examined life. I can really relate to that feeling of feeling broken and “not enough.” Have a look at “Loving What Is” by Byron Katie. Imo, the key to freedom lies in self-inquiry…the simple practice of not believing everything you think. Katie explains how to do that with 3 questions and a turnaround. Astoundingly life changing…if you really want to know your truth.