6 Ways Black And White Thinking Shows Up In Our Lives — And Causes Problems
Most of life exists in the grey areas. But that hasn't stopped people from trying to squish everything into the tiny boxes of black and white thinking. We've been taught to categorize everything as good or bad, right or wrong, which can lead to lots of misconceptions and unhelpful behaviors.
As children, many of us learn to think in black and white to attain a sense of safety, NYC-based psychotherapist and entrepreneur Lilian Ostrovsky tells Bustle. "If you’re a 'good girl,' you feel safe. You make good choices that create good feelings," she explains. "When you look through that lens, people get stuck in the identification and the story around it."
That doesn't make it easy to get out of, though. "There’s so much fear and vulnerability that surrounds each one of these topics, and there’s not a lot of places to talk about it," Ostrovsky says. "We all struggle with pressures that are put on us from social media and our parents and friends to be a certain way. At some point, it's valuable to just connect to yourself to decide what feels best and what is most sustainable."
Here are some areas of life where black and white thinking tends to show up — and the problems it can create.
"One of the manifestations of this that I see most often is people coming in and saying 'I make bad choices when it comes to my partners,'" says Ostrovsky. People will then attribute all their failed relationships to their tendency to choose bad partners, rather than taking any responsibility or learning from the relationship. "This black and white thinking creates an incomplete picture that gets in the way of real self awareness," she says.
Many of us get the message from society that there are "good bodies" and "bad bodies," and the kind of body we have determines if we are "good" or "bad." This can lead to lots of body image issues and eating disorders, says Ostrovsky. In the face of these messages, it's important to remember that all bodies are beautiful and we all deserve good things, no matter what kind of body we have.
Relatedly, the dieting industry teaches us that certain foods are good and bad for your health, when in reality, pretty much all foods have something to offer, few are actually going to hurt you in moderation, and real healthy eating means incorporating a variety of foods, not avoiding anything altogether. Furthermore, it leads people to associate so-called "good foods" with being a good person and "bad foods" with being a bad person, which is so harmful. "There’s a lot of wisdom in learning about nutrition, but it's also really important to learn how to listen to your body," says Ostrovsky. "You’re creating an intimacy with your body and your humanity."
Our culture associates how much sex you've had with how pure you are, with women especially judged according to a false virgin/whore binary. According to the messages we get, "a woman with a high sexual drive is 'bad,' she’s a 'slut,'" says Ostrovsky. "And because she’s bad and she’s a slut, then she deserves to be objectified." This has ugly implications within rape culture, and it can also lead us to hold back from following our desires or feel bad about ourselves if we do.
We talk about good and bad bosses as if anyone is one or the other. "People feel frozen and completely disempowered in their work environment if they have a 'bad boss,'" says Ostrovsky. We also talk about "good" and "bad" jobs and value people with "good" jobs more, which in reality, a "good" job is one that you like.
Many people are afraid of criticism because they feel like if they mess up, they're bad people, say Ostrovsky. We'll do anything to avoid making people mad at us because their anger feels like a condemnation of our character. Of course, everybody has done "good" and "bad" things and is capable of both.
If you catch yourself thinking in these ways, you're not alone. However, Ostrovsky recommends asking yourself if there's another way to frame the issue that acknowledges the grey areas. You just might find that this helps you look at everything, including yourself, in a new light.