Black and white




Jack slaps Jen.

Jen ends relationship.

“I can’t live this way,” she tells me.


Jack apologizes.

Jen forgives him.

“I really do love him,” she tells me.


Jack slaps Jen.

Jen ends relationship….


Black and white thinking is that habit of classifying things as either all one thing or all the other.

Kids learn it in dysfunctional families, where dangerous unpredictability prevails.

They learn to protect themselves by formulating rules to keep them out of trouble.  Since they’re kids, the rules tend towards oversimplification.  Never talk to dad when he’s drinking.  Always leave the room when mom and dad fight.   Never fail Math, because failure always earns you a beating.  Like that.

Thus on Monday and Wednesday Jen’s relationship seems all bad to her, and on Tuesday it seems all good.

For kids this sort of classification (it’s not really thinking) may actually be functional, since it provides a rough road map through difficult situations.

But people who carry it into adulthood tend to find themselves handcuffed, psychologically and emotionally.

Unable to make thoughtful choices based on a variety of considerations — including their own needs, experience and instincts —  they end up replaying old scenarios endlessly, swinging like a pendulum between two partial truths.


4 responses to “Black and white

  • Caitlin C. Trahan

    So how do you help people recognize they’re using black and white thinking as a defense mechanism (and do you consider it one)? Feels safer to stick to one belief at a time even if it’s short lived, safer than indecisiveness I guess.

  • Steve Hauptman

    Good question.

    Yes, black/white is defensive, rooted in childhood experiences which probably felt life-threatening (or close to it) to the kid.

    It’s also compulsive, which means (a) it’s driven by anxiety and (b) it has a life of its own — i.e., kicks in automatically under stress. Not easy to give up such defenses.

    So when I work with a client who relies on it usually the best I can do is point out what they’re doing and the negative consequences.

    For example, all I could do with Jen — who has plenty of people advising her to dump Jack, which is not helpful, since she’s clearly not ready to do that – is point out her chronic pendulum swing between “I love him” and “I can’t stand this,” and that it neither protects her from his abuse nor frees her to find someone who’ll treat her better.

    You’re right: it’s all about trying to find safety. And in the end people only exchange dysfunctional ways of doing that when their pain outweighs their fear of changing.

  • John

    Reblogged this on The Places That Scare You and commented:
    insightful and well-written!

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