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You may have heard of black or white thinking, or all-or-nothing thinking. We've all been there; it's when we look at a situation and define it in strictly good or bad terms, old or new, or other directly opposing views. It's the simple idea that certain things (if not all) could fall into clearly labeled, opposite camps.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if life were that easy?

It’s easy to fall into this thinking trap, as I like to call it, because it gives us definition. We like to view things as predictable. And there are certain things in life, such as certain moral standards, that are black and white. Still, I’ve experienced many situations that have shown me many more things in life are not. So many things in life are somewhere in the middle or the gray area. That’s because many things are best understood relative to our own lives and circumstances.

All-or-nothing thinking can serve us well in discerning right from wrong. But, I would submit, this thinking does not serve us well if we believe that everything is black or white. The problem is, this thinking inhibits us from being open to the slow process of change. It can also make us intolerant of real-life gray areas we cannot change just by wishing them black or white.

Harm Reduction Method

This way of thinking is something that I’ve become familiar within my work as a therapist. The theory is to identify a harmful habit you want to eventually eradicate and do it slowly over time. I find this to be a very helpful mindset with helping me to move away from all-or-nothing thinking.

I’ve worked with clients who are working to overcome addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, and other recreational drugs. One of my clients smoked about 10 cigarettes each day. Instead of suggesting that he quit cold turkey, I worked with him on slowly reducing his usage. The first week it was down to 8, then down to 6, and eventually, he was able to get down to half a cigarette when I stopped working with him. The harm reduction approach can make goals easier to attain because it breaks things down into small chunks.

I personally love chocolate (and sweets in general), but I need to reduce my intake. If I were to think about never eating sweets again, I would be tempted to immediately go to my pantry and start eating sweets. Instead, my approach has been to skip days that I eat sweets and to be mindful of eating smaller portions of them when I do. Using this method has especially helped me celebrate small victories (such as not going for a second piece of cake) instead of beating myself up for eating any cake at all.

Slowly paring things down might feel weird at first; it certainly has for me. The more I do it though, the more I find that I’m able to tolerate situations that are gray areas.

Tolerating uncertainty

In therapy, we have a term called distress tolerance. It means we can identify when we feel uncomfortable about something, and we can sit with that feeling without giving in to the urge to “fix” it or make the feeling go away.

Practicing distress tolerance is not easy to do, especially for a recovering perfectionist and a highly sensitive person like myself. To be honest, I’m continually working on developing the ability to identify when uncertainty is inevitable and make the choice to accept it. It’s not easy, but I’ve found that when I go through this process, it becomes easier to admit that it’s hard and not ideal. Accepting it as best as I can helps me get through the uncomfortable feelings. This requires frequent reminders to myself that uncertainty is generally uncomfortable, but that I will be able to tolerate it. It’s basically me giving myself a pep talk.

Life is messy

I remember one of my college professors saying, “relationships are messy.” I remember not liking this but knowing that it’s true. It was helpful to hear this phrase to know that this is how it likely is for most everyone.

Very few things in life come in clear-cut boxes or lanes. When something is clear-cut or remarkably neat, I feel either very happy or in disbelief because I’m simply not used to it. Viewing a messy situation with a touch of humor helps me tolerate the uncertainty; knowing that others deal with this feeling also is comforting and helps me feel less alone with that feeling.

Knowing that life is messy has helped me to navigate challenging circumstances one step at a time. I was able to do this because I had seen unexpected things come out of major life changes or unforeseen things. I am slowly learning (and trust me, it’s slow for this planner type) that sometimes I can even enjoy not knowing what’s down the road. For instance, I’ve learned a lot about myself by taking an unconventional career path—something I couldn’t have scripted—and I’m glad that along the way I’ve been forced to “flex” my emotional capacity for change.

Catching myself

All-or-nothing thinking is a hard pattern to break. We tend to gravitate toward this thinking because we believe it gives us some direction and safeguards us, too.

In the long run, I am learning to trust my intuition to make decisions instead of all-or-nothing thinking. Using my intuition is helpful because each situation is so different, and fluidity is a very useful life skill when evaluating situations individually.

Being able to identify when falling into the all-or-nothing thinking trap takes awareness, the willingness to change focus, and trust in your intuition. If you struggle with all-or-nothing thinking, know that with some intention, you can work to change it for yourself, step by step.