Thinking in colour

It has many names:

  • Black and white thinking
  • Absolutist thinking
  • Dichotomous thinking
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Splitting

Whichever one you choose, the tendency to see things as being all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, all this or all that, is a common type of cognitive distortion.

A cognitive distortion is ‘an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern involved in the onset and perpetuation of psychopathological states’. In other words, an unrealistic way of thinking that interferes with our happiness and psychological health. 

We routinely use thought patterns to conserve time and energy and help us to make sense of the world. We use them to help us predict what will happen, how people will behave, how we will feel – and they often serve us well. But when these patterns are over-simplified, or skewed towards a negative interpretation, we can start to have problems.

A 2018 study found that people who are experiencing anxiety, depression or suicidal thinking are significantly more likely to use ‘absolutist’ language than people who aren’t. Here’s a list of the kind of words the researchers were looking for:

Absolutely – All – Always – Complete – Completely – Constant – Constantly – Definitely – Entire – Ever – Every – Everyone – Everything – Full – Must – Never – Nothing – Totally – Whole

As someone who previously qualified for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and experienced decades of anxiety and depression (conditions which are strongly associated with this kind of language use), I can remember all too well what it felt like to think in these terms. Until a few years ago, if you had climbed inside my head and listened to the inner monologue there, you would have heard a lot of things like:

“It will always be like this.”

“You’ll never get better.”

“They all think so.”

Everything’s gone wrong.”

Nothing helps.”

In fact, at the point when I reached rock bottom, this was all there was to hear. I felt sure I knew how things were and how they always would be. It seems inconceivable now – but at that moment in time, and at many others like it, it felt completely and utterly believable.

So for me, the process of learning to be well has involved learning to think differently. I’ve come to understand that things are rarely as black and white as I used to imagine them to be. I’ve learned to see not just shades of grey, but a whole range of colours that simply weren’t visible before. I’ve found that it takes conscious effort and repeated reinforcement, but little by little, those old patterns of thinking can change.

Occasionally an old pattern will surface – most often when I’m tired or hungry or under a little more pressure than usual – but they rarely hang around for long. Because, as time goes by, I notice that life is infinitely more complex, more changeable, more subtle, more paradoxical, than seemed conceivable before – which makes concepts like ‘always’ and ‘never’ a bit harder to take seriously.

So if you sometimes find yourself imagining that everything is completely, absolutely, entirely and totally a certain way, if you fear that everyone, everywhere is doing something, or that you never, ever will – take a moment, if you can. A moment to stop and breathe and search for some colour in the situation. For some inbetweenness. For some not-quite-this and not-quite-that-ness.

Because somewhere, amidst the messiness and the blurred distinctions, there is relief, I think. The relief of discovering that things are often so much more than we allow them to be.

Two types of perfectionism

Learning to do things differently is a funny old business.

I imagine it’s slightly different for all of us, but here’s how I think it works:

  1. Make conscious effort to change behaviour
  2. Make progress
  3. Think you’ve cracked it
  4. Out of the blue, old behaviour sneaks up when you’re looking in the other direction and hijacks things for a bit
  5. Enter Vale of Despond
  6. Lick wounds and return to 1
  7. Notice that actually you’ve made lots of progress – it was just a blip
  8. Laugh at the ridiculousness of it all

It’s happened so many times now that I’m beginning to recognise the pattern much quicker than before, which makes it a great deal easier to manage. Even so – old behaviour still takes me by surprise on a pretty regular basis.

This week it happened with perfectionism. There I was, happily imagining that I didn’t do ‘perfectionism’ any more. Skipping along cheerily.

And, exactly on cue, like a wily cartoon villain tiptoeing up behind me, came a debilitating attack. Kapow.

It was only when I found myself sitting in the Vale of Despond, thinking that I would never do anything again because it wouldn’t be ‘good enough’, that I realised.

I’ve been here before.

I know this feeling.

And I know not to trust it.

At which point, the feeling seemed to evaporate. On turning around, there was no cartoon villain. Just a cloud of dust.

So rather than never doing anything again because it won’t be ‘good enough’, I decided to do a bit of reading about perfectionism.

I discovered that it’s on the rise. That there are two types: adaptive (or excellence-seeking) and maladaptive (or failure-avoiding). That, if you’re going to be a perfectionist of either kind, the former is the one to go for – but that neither kind actually results in better performance.

It can be tempting to use perfectionism as a badge of honour – a sign of how hard we’re trying, how much we care – but research suggests that it doesn’t actually help us do things better. More often, it simply slows us down and leaves us burned-out and miserable. On reflection, I’m not sure that’s a badge worth wearing.

So, having done enough wound-licking for now, I’m back off to learn a bit more. Laughing – definitely laughing – at the ridiculousness of it all…

This is a great article, if you’d like to explore the subject further…

(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

Gentling the inner critic

In a recent Ideas Community email I asked if other people have an inner critic and, if so, how they dealt with it.

By ‘inner critic’ I mean a voice in your head that belittles, criticises or discourages you.

Here’s a brief snippet of what mine might say as I write this, so you can see what I’m talking about:

“This writing isn’t good enough. I can’t share this kind of drivel. Think of those poor people, having to put up with my wittering… It’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassing. This is just like that time I wrote an English essay I thought was entertaining and funny and the teacher said it was ‘immature’. I should just give up now.”

I used to listen to that kind of stuff and really take it to heart. I thought all those nasty, judgmental things were true and I felt constantly afraid and ashamed.

Then, one day, I discovered a different voice inside my head – a gentle, compassionate one. I stumbled into a conversation with it completely by accident. It was one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me. So strange that I’m currently writing a book about the experience (amongst other things).

Learning to communicate with that other voice – my ‘inner coach’, if you like – transformed my mental health. The more I got used to conducting respectful two-way conversations in my head, the more I started talking back to my inner critic rather than just accepting everything it said as being what I thought.

So the example of negative self-talk above isn’t what I experience now. My inner critic is still alive and kicking, but these days our relationship looks a little different:

IC: This writing isn’t good enough. You can’t share this kind of drivel.

Me: I’m just getting some ideas down here. Give me a chance. I can always rewrite them in a minute.

IC: I’m pretty sure the next version will be rubbish too. Think of those poor people, having to put up with your wittering…

Me: They can always stop reading if they want to. I’m just going to keep going and do the best I can.

IC: It’s embarrassing. You’re embarrassing. This is just like that time when you wrote an English essay you thought was entertaining and funny and your teacher said it was ‘immature’. You should just give up now.

Me: Would you mind just shutting up for a minute? I’m trying to write here….

From the responses I received, it’s clear that there are all sorts of ways to change our relationship with a critical inner voice. Some people find meditation and mindfulness helpful in creating the mental space necessary to take the thoughts less seriously. Some people talk back to their critic in a similar way to the one I describe above. Others have found their own version of a compassionate ‘inner coach’. Here are some links, if you’d like to explore more of the ideas people shared:

Alfred and Shadow – A short story about self-criticism

How the subconscious mind works

Internal Family Systems Model

So I’m curious…do you have an inner critic too?

If so, how do you handle yours?

………On a related note, here a link to a music video my community made back in 2011. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the sound of lots of different people’s inner critics in the introduction. Amazing how hard we can be on ourselves, isn’t it?