Reading glasses on a folded newspaper

Black and white thoughts

Black and white thinking … not just what happens when you read a newspaper

I here am considering black and white thinking and what it is, and how it affects us. Perfectionism goes with the territory of black and white thinking, otherwise known as all or nothing thinking. This is when something is either wholly good or wholly bad, there cannot be shades of grey. This kind of thinking is common in people who suffer from depression. If something goes wrong, everything is wrong. Oddly the converse, if something goes right everything is right, does not seem to apply.

That’s because the only acceptable state of OK-ness is perfection, and less than this is unacceptable, dirty, broken and flawed. This kind of thinking serves little purpose in real life, which is dirty, broken and flawed, but also beautiful, surprising and amazing. High expectations of life can lead to crashing disappointments. Coming to accept that the world and oneself are never going to reach the heights of perfection we attain to is too much to bear for some, who by never being able to reach such standards or to find them in life perpetuate a reason to beat themseves up, and to suffer. This is the way it always is for them, and it feels safe, and there is no need to change because they feel they deserve the pain they are in for not reaching perfection. This would continue except for the need to end the pain and break free.

In the person centred model of counselling we acknowledge that every state a person finds themselves in serves a purpose, and is the right state for that person at that time. But the very thoughts that create safety also create a prison. It’s a sense of uneasiness with oneself that drives the person to seek change and an escape from the pain. We are at odds with our fully functioning selves, some part of us reaching for the light beyond the bars. Perhaps holding on to such absolutes, such idealised and black and white thinking is not serving the organism well. Just as a plant reaches for the light, so the client in therapy will reach towards their healing. How can you achieve this with black and white thinking without letting go of a dearly held ideal? Is it possible to find a compromise, to hold onto the ideal of perfection whilst accepting that this ideal, whilst possible, is very rarely found? It could be such an infinitessimal chance as to be almost negligible, but still possible as much as a miracle is possible. Believing in miracles is crazy to some, but to others is a real possibility that imparts hope into life. So, to hold in balance the real world whilst still acknowledging the possibility of a better world, seems one way of doing this. For some it is too much to say that the perfect life, relationship, way of being, actions, or whatever it is can NOT exist. And in fact, how can we know, in a world of endless possiblities, that it cannot?

Some however take the opposite view, that in a world that is inherently flawed, perfection is never possible, but they take some comfort in this view. How many times have you heard the phrase, “Nobody’s perfect”, or “you’ll never make a perfect world”? Such comments can seem dismissive in the light of someone’s pain when faced by that very imperfection, but people who are able to live happily or at least contentedly in the realisation that the world is by nature imperfect are in a much better position to live life without feeling defeated at every turn.

So what of someone who sees this as a reality but cannot live with the reality? They know that perfection is impossible and this pains them greatly, making the world an intolerable place as they would like it to be perfect and see imperfection as a bad thing. This is where I think creativity can help. I believe that being a creative person helps people to see the imperfections in life as part of a beautiful thing. There is darkness and there is light, and there are cracks but it is in these that the colours run. Holding reality in balance with the possibility of better things or even perfect things is one of the roots of creativity – the world is at once wonderful yet lacking, creating a longing in the heart for things gone or to come, or in imagination. But this longing is a strangely beautiful thing, and I believe from my own experience as well as that of many others that expressing the heart’s desire through creativity makes a beauty in the spaces that would otherwise be filled with confusion or despair. Bringing something interesting or beautiful out of something horrible is a transformative experience. I believe this innately creative side of humans to be part of what is known as the actualising tendency in person centred theory. That is, the part of a human being that is always reaching towards the light, and doing what they need to do to achieve this.

So to sum up, I wanted to bring back the newspaper in the title. Newspapers are not only printed in black on white, but tend to represent a very black and white view, albeit all coming from different biases. It goes without saying in fact that newspapers tend to represent a totally monochrome view of the world… that is, it’s all bad news. But life is not all bad news, while not perfect, it is not all totally bad either. And as I said in a previous blog post, for every negative statistic or doom and gloom prophecy in the news, there is an equal and opposite one that can be found. But those don’t make the headlines very often! So while you don’t have a choice about what the broadcasters say, you do have a choice about what you are going to give belief space to in your own head – you can write your own “head” lines.

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