Black and white, at least in therapy, is all about thinking and has nothing to do with race, color or culture. Black and white thinking is one of the major hurdles we address and challenge in therapy and it has an ability to slip into what we call rigid thinking in so many ways. A quick definition of black/white thinking is to liken it to either/or thinking. With this type of thinking, things are very rigidly and distinctly drawn as either/or, good/bad, on/off, with me/against me, right/wrong. Yet in reality, there are very few things that can be so cleanly defined or separated. Rather, the world is host to a dizzying array of gray, many subtleties and perceptions that are all valid, viable, yet for some may not be comfortable or familiar. So in therapy, we strive to first identify where the black/white has us stuck and then challenge our perceptions to find multiple plausible alternatives and enter into the gray, or for dichotomy, the both/and place.
Both/and? Why that’s crazy talk! (overheard in a therapist’s office…) Yet when we think about it a little more, we come to realize that both/and really frees us up to embrace all of the subtleties of any given situation, giving us permission then to access a greater diversity of emotions or tools to manage what we are faced with. Hmmm, not so crazy after all, now is it?
Examples of challenging black/white and embracing both/and could be: I am both angry and sad and confused and hurt. Previously someone may have only believed that they had to choose one, I am either angry or sad. In reality, we tend to be many things at once, and when faced with choosing anger over a more vulnerable emotion, like hurt, we tend to go for anger. But this is exactly where the stuck has us trapped. If we reach for anger every time we are faced with vulnerability, we never get to the core of the feeling so we aren’t able to resolve the feeling so we are stuck in being angry that our vulnerability isn’t being assuaged. See the pattern here? Rather, by embracing both/and we are able to give voice to all of the feelings we have, including the vulnerable ones, which gives us access to a wider variety of coping tools and words to help those we are seeking help from to meet our needs better. This is a great approach for kids, too. By allowing them to be many things at once they feel validated and temper tantrums tend to become less necessary.
Like the cupcake above, it is both chocolate and vanilla and it has a tinge of lemon, it is a dessert and a treat and not good for us. By linking as many things as we’d like in the and string, we come closer to the complete experience and therefore invite in more understanding for ourselves and those around us.
Try it and see for yourself. Both/and.