From black and white thinking to a glorious palette of greys

“As I look around our world, I think ‘all or nothing thinking’ has become endemic in our society and flavours our everyday life. We are constantly driven to be one thing or another thing in a world in which ‘othering’ rather than honouring our differences is de rigueur.”

I used to be a big fan of certainty. My view of the world was monochrome. So attached was I to this over simplified black and white thinking, I unconsciously, carefully divided up everything I came into contact with, be it things, ideas or people, into easy to process groupings. These allowed me to sift the good from the bad and the right from the wrong. I was so attached to these absolute divisions, that I had assigned many things a good or a bad persona. It seems so strange now and on the face of it doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, right, cold and up were ‘good’ and left, hot and down were ‘bad’. I suppose I was trying to control and make sense of the world around me. 

Years ago, when it came to light that someone important in my life had had an affair, I very quickly came to the conclusion that everything I had come to know about his kind, open nature must have been incorrect. At that time, in my eyes, he was now simply a ‘bad’ person and for a good while, I almost entirely disconnected from him, believing him to be little more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As time passed, it became impossible to hold onto this binary view whilst also observing the evidence in front of me, as he, despite my outward disengagement, continued to show up, offer apology and reflection about the impact of his choices, demonstrate patience in view of my distress and above all continue to care deeply about me. I had an increasing, unremitting sense of emerging cognitive dissonance as ‘bad’ clearly did not fit the complex, flawed, loving human I was faced with. My model was not fit for purpose. This situational understanding was absolutely pivotal to my transition from all or nothing thinking to seeing the world as I do now in a glorious palette of greys.

I am now entirely convinced that allowing ourselves to surrender to the possibility that all of life exists on a spectrum, allows us to live more wholeheartedly and freely. In fact, I think it has allowed me to actually trust myself more. I am no longer shoe horning life into its ascribed box. I am leaning in and letting my knowing decide. I have begun to let myself feel and surrender to emotions which I had learnt to keep entirely in check and had designated to the ‘bad or unhelpful’ pile in my previous binary existence. 

As I look around our world, I think ‘all or nothing thinking’ has become endemic in our society and flavours our everyday life. We are constantly driven to be one thing or another in a world in which ‘othering’ rather than honouring our differences is de rigueur. The way gender is represented in our society is one searing example of our collective black and white thinking. Writer, ALOK’s work explores the absurdity of the gender binary. They advocate that gender diversity simply exists and “The real crisis is not that gender non-conforming people exist, it is that we have been taught to believe in only two genders in the first place.” They encourage us to consider who stands to gain from this all or nothing binary thinking. Examination of who wins in a binary world is key to understanding the forces at play and the ways in which people are manipulated into false divisions. If you find yourself falling into black and white thinking patterns, pause and ask yourself why you are thinking that way and also who benefits from your certainty? I am fairly sure we rarely personally truly benefit from concrete, unshakable holding of all or nothing views.

The uncertainty of not knowing what is wrong or right is becoming much more comfortable and appealing. I’m less sure of everything, which frightens me less and less as time passes. Acknowledging uncertainty invites debate, discussion and possibility. Embracing paradox, realising that everything can be this and that in the very same moment, according to researcher and writer Brene Brown, “forces us to think in expansive ways and lean into vulnerability”. And so now, I understand that people in my life can have made decisions I have struggled to understand and still love their family deeply and I can feel bruised and still love them in return.

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