Growing up, I believed that being good at something was solely a function of raw talent. I was also the queen of extremes. Here’s what that deadly combination looked like:
My first time playing miniature golf, I went 50 over par. I would’ve been close to 100 over, but I threw my golf club across the course in frustration while screaming, “I quit! I’m never going to be good at this.”
The first board game I ever played was Monopoly–introduced to me by my older brother. After a few rounds, he’d taken over almost every property and began levying hefty taxes. I lost it and announced, “This game stinks! I’m always going to lose.” (Then I flung the board along with the little green houses and red hotels at my unsuspecting sibling… this was my signature move, if you haven’t guessed.)
As I grew, I learned to regulate my physical reactions (thank goodness!), yet a solid imprint of black-and-white thinking lingered behind. What is black-and-white thinking?
Black-and-white thinking–also known as all-or-nothing thinking–is when one views the world in absolutes. It’s a reductionist mindset where situations are often boiled down to two options: I’m good at this or bad at this; This will be a success or failure; This is awesome or this is terrible.
Black-and-white thinking is a typical cognitive distortion (inaccurate thoughts that reinforce negative emotions or thinking), a hallmark of anxious or depressed individuals, and a platform for perfectionism. Sounds fun, huh? It gets worse.
Black-and-white thinking is often followed by “should” statements and self-blame: “I should be better than I am” or “I am to blame for my shortcomings.” In sum, thinking in absolutes instead of shades of grey contributes to stress, worry, and overall lack of well-being.
If your child or student exhibits black-and-white thinking, what can you do? Try these 4 techniques:
1. Start using the word “and,” instead of “or.”
Original: “This class is terrible or amazing.”
Replacement: “This class has some interesting parts and some more challenging parts.
2. Speak in shades of grey by reducing absolute words (e.g. everything, always).
Original: “I’ll never be good at this.”
Replacement: “I’m not good at this now, but with practice I could get better.”
3. Use a sliding scale of probability from 0 to 100.
Original: “I’m never going to get into college.”
Replacement: “The probability I’m going to get into college is X%”
4. Change your “should” language.
Original: “I should be studying more.”
Replacement: “Studying more would be helpful for me.”