Lately, there’s been a lot of conversation, posts, and monologues that beg an answer to these questions: “Are you for or are you against?” “Are you hopeful or are you scared?” “Do you support or protest?” “Pancakes or french toast?” (that was this morning). Debates ensue, like buttons are pushed, posts are shared, friends are unfollowed, and pancakes are eaten (because that was 2-0).
I don’t know if you’re like me, but I often find myself as a spectator watching comment sections on Facebook blow up, marveling with curiosity at how people can be so unwaveringly adamant on their positions, to the point where they can be so dismissive of those who think differently. For some, it seems like engaging with these issues doesn’t cause much internal turmoil at all. For them, figuring out where they stand is easy, simple, straightforward, and confidence abounds. Here’s my concern: while the simplicity and apparent strength of this may be attractive and seem noble, it’s often a decisiveness that is born out of a style of thinking that can actually be pretty damaging. It’s called BAWT.
Black-and-white thinking also known as BAWT (because I don’t want to keep typing it out), all-or-none thinking, and either/or thinking is defined by a person’s inability to hold both the positive and negatives about a person, self, or situation at the same time in order to have an accurate picture of reality. They see one part, not all.
BAWT’s a big no-no that we therapists work to help people catch and shift because it makes people vulnerable to depression, perfectionism, low self-esteem, anxiety, overreactions, despair, unfair judgments, misunderstandings, and hurt relationships.
Please allow yourself to entertain the following vignette that demonstrates BAWT (I’m getting tired of typing that out, too):
(This scene takes place upon returning home after a mother has lovingly and dutifully put aside her own needs and comfort and accompanied her daughter to Chuck E. Cheese where three hours and $40 were spent for her child’s pure joy and entertainment.)
Child: (kicks shoes off in the entry way) “Can Avery sleep over?”
Mother: (Lugging in purse full of airheads, bouncy balls, tattoos, and other things from the “5 ticket” bins). “No, we’ve had a long day, and–”
Child: “WHYYYYYYYYY? It’s NOT a school night!”
Mother: “I know, but we’ve had a full day, and tomorrow there’s a bunch of stuff we–”
Child: “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”
Mother: “Do not talk to me that way.”
Child: (Child screams as she runs up the stairs towards her room) THIS IS THE WORST DAY EVERRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!
(Mother slowly sits down on the entryway bench and ponders what just happened) “My daughter’s BAWTing all over the place. Because of her emotion, she has forgotten about the positives of this day. This is causing her picture of me and the day to be inaccurate. I, however, will go to her, soothe her emotions, and help her understand that her day has held both joy and disappointment.”
Actually, I believe I said, “Slam your door again, and you won’t have one” (Gold star!).
Kids are notorious for this type of thinking because the poor things barely have a developed frontal lobe. That’s their excuse, but after age 25 we have more of an opportunity to be a little more nuanced. We have the opportunity, to protect ourselves from the pitfalls of black-and-white thinking and stretch, as uncomfortable as it may be, for the type of thinking that says, “and.”
Maybe we can look at an issue and say, “I’m for and against,” “I’m hopeful and scared” “I support and I protest” “I agree and disagree” “I will eat panfrenchycakes.” Our ability to hold positives and negatives at the same time will allow us to be more understanding, compassionate, reasonable, wise, and heard by others.
When I started thinking of a title picture to go with this post. I thought of zebras for the obvious reasons and the title, “Beware the zebra.” Then of course, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” annoyingly popped into my head–and it’s still there. Then, I thought of Michael Jackson, for the obvious reasons. What I landed on, however, is the pillow that’s in my office. It’s an ampersand, a symbol for “and.”