How a Simple Technique Can Change the Way You Approach Life
Someone I spoke to recently was struggling with black and white thinking. Black and white thinking is the idea that our thoughts are either/or. This person felt that these two (seemingly) opposing ideas were eventually going to ruin them. These thoughts would need to be reckoned, and they felt unsettled and frustrated.
Life in the Grey
As I sit here thinking about that conversation, the concept of "both/and" comes to mind. It’s a therapeutic technique that comes from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) which is a modality that embraces acceptance and change. Let's say you just got accepted to a university out of state. With both/and, simply put: you can be both excited to be accepted to college and moving to a new place, and nervous/sad about starting your college journey and leaving home.
It allows acceptance for these two seemingly opposing feelings without the distress of feeling like you have to "pick a side." (What a relief!) Living in black and white thinking often negates a part of us in sacrifice to the other side. Using the example above, I might say to myself, “I am not going to be nervous about starting college and leaving home. I’m going to push that out of my mind and just be excited and ready to move away and start college.” This shuts down the very real and important feelings of being nervous and sad. We might then find ourselves doing things to try and stuff down the feelings of nerves and sadness, which could then pop out in stress and anxiety that we might not possibly recognize as linked to our feelings.
Alternately, if I let myself live in the nervousness and sadness of starting college and leaving home, I could be swept into being overwhelmed by my feelings and not allowing myself to be excited and determined in my journey. I may avoid social activities or new friendships because I am too overwhelmed by my feelings to even want to engage in my new life. I might even want to unenroll and go home. But I want you to hear this:
There is nothing wrong with feeling your feelings, just don’t be directed by your feelings. Feelings are information, not instructions.
The Cost of Picking a Side
Choosing a side sticks us in a place where we do not allow for the full experience of our situation, where we do not access what we need, and become unrealistic in our expectations. However, allowing ourselves to experience “both/and” thinking gives us the opportunity to informed by our feelings. Feeling sad? Maybe call home and talk to a friend about it. Feeling nervous? Maybe meet with someone who has already started college to help you gain more perspective. Feeling excited? Go sign up for a club! Feeling determined? Write down your intentions for the year so you can stay motivated and on track.
The important thing to keep in mind is to evaluate whether or not you’re thinking in black and white, and then act accordingly. We want to keep trying to move to the middle space of both/and. It’s important to not make decisions when you’re in black and white. You may come to regret those decisions when you’re later on the opposite thought.
How to Think Both/And
So now that you know what both/and thinking is, how do you do it? Okay, so first, grab a piece of paper and a pen. Fold it in half hot dog style (feeling like 1st grade yet?) and then smooth it out. Then sit for a minute and really think about what is going on in your brain. On one side, write your thought. Then sit for a minute and consider if you feel something else that feels opposite. Keep doing this until all your thoughts about the topic are written down. Here’s what your list might look like:
I feel excited that I moved to a new state. I feel sad that I moved away from home.
I feel motivated to meet new people. I miss the friends I have back at home.
I feel excited to start a new job. I’m afraid of starting something new.
I feel blessed that I live where I live. I don’t know what to do in my new place.
Now that you have your thoughts all written down, how can you honor both thoughts? Consider what it might be like to feel both and not have to come up with an answer that reconciles them. (I know, it will feel weird, but thats okay.) Something that might help is thinking of each thought as a part of you. Part of me is excited. Part of me is sad. Part of me is motivated. Part of me is homesick. You can allow each part to exist. You can even physically put your hands out, palms up, and imagine holding each “opposing” idea and not having to choose. Just letting it be.
Practicing this will help you to not force yourself to choose, which could cause you distress down the road. This allows you to get your needs met regardless of what “side” you’re presently on, while not shoving away the real parts of your life and experience.
Tell me, what are some ideas you have about allowing yourself to live in the both/and? Share your ideas with us in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!
Erin Sanchez, M.S., LMFTA