Black-and-white thinking

Usually, I’m working to see things in greater nuance.

When I was a therapist, a lot of my work was observing ways my clients were applying black-and-white thinking to situations that were decidedly gray. When I am the client, a lot of my work falls into this category, too.

This is all to say, I totally buy into the idea that black-and-white thinking can be a mental trap worth avoiding.

But, like anything, I can go overboard. By being so determined to see things more than one way, I can sometimes become paralyzed with how many ways I can see things. It all becomes noise, and I can’t make out the signal any more.

Then I remembered another lesson from my background in psychology.

When I was conducting research on trauma, we employed a technique called data reduction.

Data reduction is taking complex data and simplifying them in order to help them make sense.

Yesterday, I decided to apply data reduction to my own life. I drew a table. I labeled the left column “stress-relievers” and the right “stress-inducers.” Everything I could think of went on one side or the other.

This did some useful things:

    This technique freed me from the trap of feeling silly or ashamed about what’s difficult for me. I don’t have to feel silly for calling “writing emails” stress-inducers. Because I can say with certainty that they are not stress-relievers. I could be more honest about how my experiences are, rather than how I think they should be.

    The more I wrote, the more specific I got — and specificity can lead to solutions. “Opening Gmail app on my phone” was also a stress-inducer. This helped me see that, huh, maybe I shouldn’t do that hourly.

    The table helped me see how my stress was out of balance. Even though I’d like to get to a point where I don’t need to understand myself to feel compassion toward myself, the truth is that it sure helps for now.

    It put small things in context. When I was done, I saw a big list of stressors. I also saw that my big list was made up of small experiences. Opening my gmail app may seem like such a small stress-inducer on its own that it’s not worth bothering to change. But I can see that as one of a limited number of stressors I can address, it is absolutely worth it.

Sometimes black and white thinking is a problem sometimes it’s a tool

Published by Emily P.G. Erickson

Emily P.G. Erickson is a writer with a master's degree in psychology. She crafts helpful, science-backed pieces that come straight from the heart. Her writing about mental health, mindfulness, and motherhood has appeared in The New York Times, Elemental, Forge, and more.

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