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. Her helpful, science-backed journalism and essays about mental health, mindfulness, and motherhood have appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, Romper, Elemental, and elsewhere. You can find the latest from Emily at www.emilypgerickson.com.

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