Seeing the World in Black and White

Our lovely client, Chrissy, discusses her journey from black and white to multicoloured thinking!

Black and white thinking is something that’s haunted me for as long as I can remember before I went into treatment for my eating disorder. Of course, before I went into treatment I wasn’t aware of my black and white thinking- what it was or how it was affecting me. As far I as I knew that was just how things were- I never questioned it or thought to question it. The awareness that my recovery journey brought me has helped me- and is still helping me- challenge that type of thinking that has been so harmful and sometimes debilitating to my mental health and life. In this blog I want to talk about black and white thinking- what it is and my experience of it, and what has helped me challenge it along my journey, in the hopes that it might help someone reading this and also as a chance to reflect on my own growth.

So black and white thinking is a pretty accurate title for what it means- to see things as black and white. In other words, to always see the world, people and situations through a tiny lense that only shows two points of extremity. Examples of this are seeing people as bad OR good or someone as right OR wrong. Basically, there’s no grey area. There’s no room of normality- it’s all extremity. It’s like seeing the whole world in little boxes and categories- and if you don’t fit into X category then you must be Y. There’s no room for middle ground. And considering that everything in life is just one big middle ground with many paths to take, this kind of thinking can inflict a lot of pain on the person by limiting so much of what they see.

In my case, black and white thinking was the norm. Before I developed my eating disorder, in the build up to it I guess I developed black and white thinking as a coping mechanism. Past trauma and the painful beliefs I carried with me as a result of that needed some sort of explanation- one of which became my extreme way of seeing things. For example, bullying I suffered at school led to me placing myself in a certain box of people- and in order to not suffer that way again it only made sense to become a different “sort” of person. It was the way my 10 year old self could make sense of why those things were happening to me. Black and white thinking became a way for me to keep myself space- to avoid situations that I found scary or that I felt unsafe in. Conflict was one of those situations.  Only until recently, my view of conflict was that one person had to be “right” and the other had to be “wrong”- it made no sense to my brain that there was any other way. My experiences of conflict in the past had scared me and I needed a way to avoid it, or to avoid being the target, so by seeing conflict in this way meant that as long as I sided with the person who was “right” I wouldn’t be attacked. I wasn’t able to feel secure in my relationships, I felt that life was a constant battle-ground, and I needed to jump ship whenever necessary to protect myself from being hurt. My relationships did suffer, as I couldn’t stand up for what I believed in as I was too scared of becoming “wrong” and it just felt easier to not say my truth. Half the time I don’t think I was aware of what my truth was, I numbed my true self and carried on navigating my way across the minefield.

Sadly, seeing life as a minefield was also something I wasn’t aware that I was doing. I did not know that people were not one thing or another, I grew up seeing certain people (those who had hurt me) as “bad” and those who hadn’t hurt me as “good”. The revelation that we are in fact all just human- though of course I only surround myself with people who truly love me and treat me well- and that someone doing something bad doesn’t make them a “bad” person was pretty mind blowing! I guess I’m mainly talking about my view of myself. Over the years, I carried so much shame and self-hatred and anything I did wrong or whenever I hurt someone’s feelings, I just added it to my list of things to hate about myself. I was incapable of self-forgiveness (and forgiveness towards anyone else) and I held grudges so strongly against myself (and others). I either demonized myself and others, or I idealized them. This contributed to other destructive parts of my life, such a codependency. Since I could only see people as “good” or “bad”, I would switch from seeing them as one to seeing them as the other, keeping me in destructive and emotionally abusive relationships.

When I first began my treatment, I had no idea that facing this facet of my life would happen. When I first heard of the term “black and white thinking” I understood it on an intellectual level (I think I’d also heard the term before from past therapy) but of course, understanding something and putting it into practice are two very different things. As I delved deeper into my psyche and explored different parts of my life in treatment, I continued to learn but it would still take time for the internal shifts to happen. When conflict began to arise both in my treatment and outside of it, looking at it objectively now I can see that my long buried insecurities and black and white thinking rose to the surface and it was a very scary period of time for me. I was either seeing X person as good and me as bad or X person as bad and me as good- that mixed with the beliefs that I held about myself resulted in a mix of confusion, fear and deep sadness. I felt I couldn’t trust anyone, that everyone hated me, and either everyone was against me and I had to fight for love or that I was furious at them and wanted to kick off. As I look at it now I can see how confused I was- my system of thinking and the extreme way that I viewed the world- my world, my relationships, myself and my life- was all getting brought to the surface. It was painful, but as I continued to show up to my treatment every day despite the fear, overtime something began to shift and the cogs in my head started turning.

I guess I view that shift in my head as a build up, I was getting all this valuable information from those around me (my therapist, my spiritual family) that I couldn’t process or make any sense of at the time, but that mixed with recent events finally resulted in a change. By recent events, I mean that as I started being more open and honest in groups, I started revealing parts of myself that I was deeply ashamed of. Feelings such as jealousy and anger that I considered to make me a “bad” person started coming to light, but instead of being met with the judgment that I feared, I was met with understanding and others relating to me. I saw that we all have the same feelings- not all the time about everything- but we all feel those feelings.  I also learned that even if someone was furious at me and saw me in a bad light, that still wouldn’t mean I was “bad”- that’s how THEY feel. And that helped put things into perspective for me- first of all that feelings such as jealousy etc are not “bad”, they are just feelings, but also that everyone can feel that too. And it doesn’t make me or anyone else “bad”, it just shows we are human and it can teach us a lot about ourselves. When my therapist challenged me to use my jealousy as a tool to learn more about myself, it was such a powerful realization that I was not “bad”, I just felt lacking in some way. And since realizing this, I was able to further challenge that belief. It was, and still is, a constant learning experience. Before, my therapists would always tell me to be curious about what I was discovering and feeling and not to run from it. Because I judged myself so much for feeling and thinking certain things and emotions, there was no room for learning, for curiosity. I just hid myself and my feelings away in shame, pushing those close to me away and creating this force field around me that made it impossible for anyone to get in or for me to really hear anyone. But with time, holes starting being poked through the force field.

It wasn’t just relationships that my black and white thinking affected, though that was one of the biggest areas which it did. Decision-making, particularly big decisions in my life became unbearably complicated. I remember at the start of this year my therapist encouraged me to look at what the next step for me in my life- alongside recovery- was. Acting, since I first discovered it at 11 years old, was my passion, and I couldn’t think of anything else I would want to do in my life. But because of beliefs I had absorbed from others and my black and white thinking, I didn’t see this as an option because “I’d never make a living, I’d never make any money, it’s too risky etc.” When my therapist asked me how did I know that if I never tried, I just found it too hard to deviate from my beliefs- they seemed so set in stone. In my head, it was either that I found something else to do, or I’d go into acting and never make a living. It took time but when I started pushing through and trying despite my fear, I ended up finding a drama school that couldn’t have been more perfect for me. I still marvel at how amazing a place it is, and how perfectly I fit in there and it fits me. I never would have discovered such a place if I didn’t continue to follow the road, despite all the bumps, rejections and fears that came up. Seeing how happy I am now, it’s helped me realize that there is no black and white or right or wrong in terms of following your heart. Really, the only thing that I could do “wrong” is to not follow my heart or to engage in self-destructive things. Otherwise, I can see that the rigidity of my views before felt so real but were just an illusion of fear – it makes no sense for them to exist considering how fulfilled I am now by the decision I made to follow what I wanted- not what I thought I “should” do.

I suppose now, with what I’ve seen and with what I continue to learn and to challenge, there’s starting to be no more room in my life for black and white thinking. And it makes life seem so much easier, so much less scary. Life isn’t easy, but the idea of certain people being monsters and me being powerless to stop them hurting me- or that I am in fact a monster that everyone would be disgusted by if they knew my innermost thoughts, made it seem ten thousand times scarier. Learning to not see things in a black and white way has helped me in healing my relationship with myself, and also with others. I know that in time, forgiveness will come as long as I keep working on this. I know that none of us are “bad” people, we are all good and we all have a history. I can see that the darkness in my history, the things that I did wrong did not brand me as “evil”, and I can see that those who I blamed for so long for my pain were not “evil” either, just deeply unhappy and unwell. Seeing the world in a non-extreme way helps me feel more peaceful, more understanding and more relaxed overall. It’s such a relief to know that I no longer have to fight and fight to protect myself- of course I have my boundaries and won’t surround myself with anyone who disrespects them or who hurts me- but it’s like this veil has been lifted from my eyes. And I’m so grateful for that.

Now, it makes no sense that anything is black and white. The world, us humans in it and every decision we make is too complex, too multilayered to be just one thing or the other. I feel that all I can do is hope for the best, continue following my heart and navigating my way through life by listening to my gut- a.k.a, if I’m uncomfortable, something’s not right. And if I’m happy, then it is right!

So at the end of the day, the world and all of us in it aren’t black and white. Though to be honest I don’t really like the idea of everything being grey either!! I prefer thinking of everything as multicoloured. And that’s what we all are, as humans we are all a mix of so many beautiful colours- both the light and the dark, the bright and the dim and everything in between. And that’s what makes us so wonderful, we have everything within us. In my case, it never made sense that I could be so many things all at once, I always thought I was either one OR the other. But I am a mix of everything, all of the amazing colours of the world, and so is everyone. That’s what makes us beautiful. That’s what makes us equal. That’s what makes us human.

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