Have you ever had thoughts like these?
- “I’m never going to be successful.”
- “My boss never respects me.”
- “My boyfriend never gets how I’m feeling.”
- “My wife always nags me when I hang out with friends.”
- Fill in the blank: “________(someone) always _______(negative).”
- Fill in the blank: “_______(someone) never _______(positive).”
When you think someone or something is “always negative” or “never positive,” you are thinking in black and white. This is often referred to as dichotomous thinking. Thinking this way becomes a trap when the negative overtakes the positive and most (if not all) thoughts about this person become stuck in the negative.
I call it a trap also because how we think is inextricably linked to how we feel and how we behave. So, if a woman thinks “My husband is always thinking of himself first,” she will likely feel sad, hurt, frustrated, angry (or some combination of negatives emotions) about her husband. Which will likely impact how she interacts with him. She may become defensive, critical of him, or distant from him. Not only does this impact the relationship, it also impacts her, the person with the negative thoughts. Commonly, people who think negatively in black and white are less happy overall and less satisfied in their relationships.
So how can you escape the trap? You can challenge yourself to think somewhere in the middle. I call this “thinking in the gray.” Here are 4 steps to get you started.
- Identify your dichotomous thought: The first step is to hone in on and acknowledge the negative black and white thought. Once you have it, write it down. If it helps, you can use the fill in the blank template above.
Example: “My boss never respects me.”
- Challenge your thought to determine if it is realistic: A thought is realistic when it is backed by evidence. If you are having negative thoughts and feelings, you likely have some evidence to back it up. However, in order to “think in the gray” you need to acknowledge the evidence that runs contrary to the negative. Challenge your thought by listing exceptions. This can be hard because you are likely used to thinking about and only seeing the negative. Really rack your brain for the positives!
Example: “My boss listened to my input at the meeting and it made a difference in our proposal.”
“My boss sent an email last week thanking me for working late.”
- Replace it with a “gray” thought: Now that you have evidence to challenge the original thought, it is time to replace it with something that represents the middle ground. Although there may still be negative in your thought, you will no longer feel stuck or hopeless because there is now positive in your thought as well. The thought is not as extreme.
Example: “There are times I feel disrespected by my boss, however she appreciates my contributions.”
- Take action if needed: A balanced thought allows for positive action to take place.
Example: The person in our example my feel empowered to speak to his boss about his concerns or may decide there is enough positive to balance or outweigh the negative so no action is needed.
It is important to note that in some cases your negative thoughts about someone may be very realistic. If a person is consistently hurtful, harmful, or toxic, actions to safely address the issue or distance from that relationship may be what is ultimately beneficial.
When you have overwhelmingly negative thoughts, emotions, or behaviors, consider “thinking in the gray.” “Gray” may not be a happiest of colors, but thinking in it has benefits for you and your relationships.