“I always forget my friends’ birthdays.”
“You are the worst boyfriend ever.”
Do you sometimes find yourself thinking or speaking in an all-or-nothing manner? Do you tend to view things in an extreme way? If so, does this habit work well for you, or does it trip you up? I’m guessing that it’s the latter.
Black-and-white thinking can be a major contributor to misery. It’s a small step from such a thought process to believing that either everything is going our way, or all is lost. This mindset is unnecessarily limiting and irrational, because life simply does not fit into neat, little categories, so we are bound to be at odds with reality.
While it may feel to us as if compartmentalizing ourselves, other people, situations, countries, ethnicities, genders, professions, etc. will make things clearer, due to our brain’s wish to organize, black-and-white thinking actually does the opposite. Our limited viewpoint can lead us to act in rigid and self-destructive ways.
For example, if when faced with a challenging situation, we say to ourselves, “I cannot stand this!”, is this likely to help us take appropriate steps towards a solution? Or will this catastrophizing belief lead us to employ negative coping techniques such as isolating, engaging in addictive behaviors, self-injury, self-condemnation, or vindictive actions towards others?
When we are extremely frightened or overwhelmed, we do not think clearly. So, learning to practice more balanced, or dialectical thinking, can help to dial down our level of anxiety, see the nuances in situations, and act towards others and ourselves in more effective ways.
Dialectical thinking means that we practice the beliefs that:
- A situation can be viewed in more than one way.
- A problem can be solved in more than one way.
- Two people can view the same situation in different ways, and both people can be right.
- Extreme terms such as “always”, “never”, and “either-or” can be substituted by “frequently”, “at times”, or “seldom”.
- We can tolerate confusion and not knowing absolutely everything about a situation.
- We can wish that things could stay the same and also acknowledge that change is inevitable.
- We can understand why someone might want us to do something and also say no to the request.
- We can enjoy being alone at times and also miss other people’s company.
- We can have fun at a party and also imagine how nice being at home alone reading a book might be.
- We can love someone and also be angry with them.
- We use phrases such as “I feel…” rather than “You are [mean, rude, etc.]…”
- We cannot know for certain what someone else is thinking or feelings. We look for clues and ask clarifying questions.
- We can be kind and also set appropriate and firm boundaries.
- We can accept ourselves as we are and also want to change some things about ourselves.
- We can not be in the mood to do something and be willing to do it anyway.
- We can question our ability to accomplish a task and be willing to give it a shot anyway.
- We can appreciate both the similarities and differences between ourselves and other people.
- We can validate why someone else might feel a certain way (i.e., enraged) and also tell them that hitting us is not acceptable.
- We can allow ourselves to experience a powerful emotion and also control our behavior.
- We can share certain secrets with people and keep other secrets to ourselves.
- We can spend time doing activities we need to do and also find time to do things we want to do.
After some time practicing dialectical thinking and acting, we strengthen our ability to:
- Anticipate various possible outcomes to a dilemma
- Appreciate other people’s points of view
- Refrain from impulsive words and behaviors
- Make reasoned decisions, having weighed the associated pros and cons
- Have patience, curiosity, tolerance, and humility
- Have more harmonious relationships with other people and ourselves
Ultimately, we find ourselves living more and more of the time in a centered, balanced, and wise manner, able to maintain our emotional balance no matter what life throws our way. True, in order to do so, we will need to let go of our need to be right, in control, and in the know (which are all illusions, anyway). For many of us, this relinquishment does not come easily. However, dialectical thinking would say that we can be afraid to change and yet be willing to do so.