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Don’t Fall for This Sneaky Brain Trick

If you’re anything like me, the brain is anything but black and white. But Black-or-White Thinking can happen! I love learning about how our brains process information, the glitches in their programming, and how those natural tendencies influence us in helpful and not-so-helpful ways. Good thing, too, since I’ve spent the last two decades studying this kind of thing!

Distorted thinking patterns and brain glitches cause all kinds of problems. In the context of the upcoming election, though, one in particular stands out to me, and I want to make you aware of it, too, so that we can all work on keeping our thoughts healthy and helpful.

Black-or-White Thinking

A particularly common yet problematic brain glitch is black-or-white thinking (BOWT), also called dichotomous or all-or-none thinking. BOWT shows up when we think in rigid either/or terms. The issue here is that very few things in life are truly black and white. BOWT creates false extremes that can lead to all kinds of problems, and it keeps us from seeing the world as it really is.

Take these examples, for instance.

  • “I ate a cookie, so my diet is blown.” What kind of choices are going to be made now, and how do those line up with health goals?
  • “Everyone is better at that than I am.”  What kind of impact is that thought going to have on continued effort and confidence?
  • “You’re either with me or against me.” (Hello, election season.) What’s the effect here on collaboration and effective problem-solving? What about on attitudes and emotions?
  • “If it’s not perfect, then it’s a failure.” How do those unreasonably high standards play out over time?

Are you starting to see how BOWT can create some problems? It becomes even more clear when we contrast it to more rational alternative thoughts like:

  • “I ate a cookie, but that’s not the end of the world. I can still make healthy choices for the rest of the day and minimize the damage.”
  • “A lot of people are better than I am at this, but I can improve with practice.”
  • “We have a lot of differences, but I bet we can find some common ground to work from.”
  • “No one is perfect. This is good enough.”

 Problems with BOWT

1. Negative effects on your feelings and behaviors 

You’re probably getting the sense that BOWT can negatively impact your feelings as well as your actions, and it certainly can! In fact, BOWT can also contribute to broader and more pervasive depression and anxiety, too.

2. Limited choices

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you had to make a choice, but neither of the options in front of you seemed like good ones? For example, either I tell my friend she’s upsetting me and ruin the friendship or I say nothing and just deal with it. Yikes. Neither of those sounds particularly appealing, does it? Pay attention to this one: Either I send my kids back to school and they’ll get COVID or I quit my job to teach them at home. Again, neither sounds ideal. When BOWT is determining our choices, we’re limited. We can choose black or we can choose white. Often, though, there are gray choices available. We’re just not seeing them.

3. Relationship damage

When BOWT shows up in our relationships, bad things happen. Most people are a complex mix of strengths and flaws, of good intentions and mistakes. When we view people in black or white terms, though, we oversimplify and filter out important information.  We miss out on that complexity and that can cause some damage. Consider, for a moment, what happens if you view your partner in all-or-none terms. Let’s assume your partner did something that he knows you don’t like, and your automatic thought was, “He never thinks about anyone but himself.” How is that scenario going to play out? And what happens if you repeatedly think of your partner in that way? Moreover, what happens when we think about children or coworkers or bosses or even strangers in black-or-white, extreme terms? I’m not seeing a pathway to solid, healthy relationships here. Are you?

Recognizing BOWT

BOWT can be sneaky and isn’t always easy to recognize. Fortunately, there are some red flags that can alert you that you are falling into this trap.

Either/or

If you find yourself thinking or saying “either/or” take a pause. This is a signal of BOWT. Your mind is only seeing two options, and chances are that’s a false dichotomy.

Extreme language

Extreme language is often a sign of BOWT. Words like “always/never” or “everyone/no one” signal extremes.

Shades of Gray

When you notice BOWT, I challenge you to find the gray. You may be able to do that by simply asking yourself if there’s a gray option here. Other helpful questions include:

  • Can it be both/and instead of either/or?
    • For example, can I be a generally successful person who also made a mistake? Can she be both loving towards me and occasionally do things that hurt my feelings?
  • Are there any exceptions? Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of circumstances? 
    • Does my partner really never think about anyone else? Have there really been 0 times that he considered someone else’s needs?
  • Is that conclusion extreme? Could there be another outcome?
    • For example, does eating one cookie really mean that my diet is completely blown? Could it, instead, mean that I practiced moderation and can continue to make healthy choices?
  • What’s a third option?
    • For example, are these really my only two choices? How might I get the best of both? Or what else could I do in this situation?
  • And, one of my all-time favorite, most useful questions…is this thought helpful?

Beyond the Gray Zone

I hope you’ll embrace the gray and make efforts to counteract BOWT. Keep in mind, though, that changing your thinking patterns is an ongoing process. You’re going to slip into these glitches regularly, and it’s important that you don’t get black-or-white about your success! It’s possible to both make progress on your thinking AND slip into old habits. How’s that for gray zone?

And, if you are as fascinated with the brain as I am, you’ll love our Ascend program, especially Module 2: Your Mind. In this section of the program, the purpose only is how your mind works and why It does the things it does. Through the educational videos and hands-on exercises, you’ll learn about different forms of problematic thinking. You’ll get really clear on how your mind works and when it’s helping and hurting you. And most importantly, you’ll develop the skills to turn your mind into your biggest asset. Click the image below to learn more about the program. 

It’s up to each of us to learn how to make our minds work for us, and doing so can have a HUGE impact on your life experience. The gray zone, with its infinite shades, is a freer, more balanced place to live. I’ll see you there!

“Don’t define your world in black and white, because there is so much hiding amongst the greys.”
– Unknown
Categories
Podcasts

How to Create a More Spacious Mind

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Tell me if you relate to any of these situations: 

  • You walk into a room and forget why you went there. 
  • You forget names or stumble over words as you speak 
  • You have an endless to-do list running through your mind of things you can’t forget to get done 

If any of these sound familiar, you’ll want to catch this week’s episode. This week, we’re talking all about types of cognitive load and decision fatigue and how to reduce mental clutter and create more spaciousness in your mind.  Cognitive load refers to the inner struggle dealing with too many factors at once. Working through detailed information processing while battling split attention effect can make your working memory and long-term memory suffer.

There’s good news, however: we can increase cognitive load and processing capacity. When we reduce extraneous cognitive load we can improve our working memory capacity including short-term memory and improve our personal learning experiences.

In this episode, I give a deep overview of what cognitive load and decision fatigue are. We talk about the brain science behind why they happen and how they’re a very natural response to a very old brain attempting to operate in modern society. 

I give such a deep overview because I want you to know that you’re not a failure, you’re not weak, and you’re not deficient in some way if you drop a ball or forget something. You’re a human with a brain. That’s it. 

Finally, we go into the 4 R’s of reducing cognitive load to create more mental spaciousness: 

  • Reduce  
  • Replicate 
  • Reorganize 
  • Act Rapidly 

I hope this episode helps you understand your mind a little better and helps you develop a sense of compassion for yourself as a human being just trying to do the best they can.  

You’re doing great. 

Throughout this episode, I mentioned a free resource for you to help you regain feelings of balance and control when life feels overwhelming, when your perfectionism kicks in, or when the future has you feeling worried. Visit www.peakmindpsychology.com/support to get immediate access to this free resource. Join nearly 1000 other people who have checked out this resource as a way to help regain balance during a chaotic time.