We all have our fears, insecurities, and doubts, don’t we? In fact, from very young ages, we were taught to trust and distrust the things in our surrounding environment. A very Sisyphean way of thinking. We innately fear what we don’t quite understand. Until we can put those worries to bed, all we could do is try to make ourselves feel comfortable.
To save ourselves the trouble of complicating our thoughts, we turn a blind eye towards perspectives that we are less inclined to believe in or to believe will happen. This sort of black-and-white thinking (or all-or-nothing thinking) is a defence mechanism.
Dealing in absolutes is essentially when we take an answer, solidify our stance on it, and ignore all other possibilities. It is an extreme that implores us to think that something or someone is entirely good or entirely bad; whether it is to be trusted or not. We become reluctant to find a middle ground.
The psychiatric term for this phenomenon is called splitting.
Splitting in relationships
Trust is a major factor in any healthy relationship. Once it is broken, it can be really hard to restore the relationship dynamics to what it once was.
People and their personalities exist on a spectrum; not on opposite poles. It is through splitting that we see someone as either purely “angelic” or “devilish”. We place our trust on the things that we can control. That is the reason why people who experience splitting find company in yes-men.
It doesn’t stop there, however. It only devolves further into a more viciously toxic cycle from that point onwards. When we see things in absolutes; that a person is seemingly devout to us, we find attachment in them. We’d never want them to leave us so we make drastic, and often destructive measures in an attempt to keep them closer. Our insecurities and dependencies will suffocate them.
When our needs are not met, we become quick to label them as someone who could not be trusted. An “if you are not with me, then you are my enemy” mindset. We perceive their disagreements as a threat to our worldview.
There is no room for negotiations, no compromises, and no consideration for anyone else but yourself. It is being selfish in our perspectives do we become void of an emotional connection with people.
Splitting does not usually last long. It may be recurring, sometimes revisited, but relatively short in its duration.
The constant battle for control
Splitting is not limited to just how we view external factors. Black-and-white thinking applies to how we see ourselves, too.
If we were to do something bad, say we’ve somehow hurt another’s feelings, rather than to straight up and apologise, we embrace the idea of being seen as some desiccated villain. This is a defeatist mentality at best. We allow one bad experience to define us.
Sometimes, a person who ‘splits’ may act out irrationally; throw a tantrum, or risk escalating tensions. They become so fixated on their negative self-image that their actions conform or manifest according to what they believe themselves to be.
The thing about black-and-white thinking is that it is a belief that everything has a fixed attribution, such as: “Murder is intrinsically evil.” While this sort of thinking is innate and is essential for survival when getting accustomed to newer concepts, some things are not so easily generalisable.
Take yourself, for example. You can’t always be expected to make the right decisions just as how you can’t always be up to no good. We are defined by the things we accomplish; the things we do. Ideally, we succeed in a healthy amount of good and bad endeavours. The keyword is ‘healthy’.
The real struggle of black-and-white thinking is in the control of the things we do and by extension, the way we see ourselves. It is because the two factors come together. We bring about good actions because we believe in ourselves to be good people, and vice versa.
“Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million grey areas, don’t you find?”Ridley Scott
A desperate bid for happiness
Reality is denied when our rationality is flawed at finding reasons. Building the house of your dreams do not guarantee that others will visit you; more money does not mean you get to sleep easily at night. Ever heard the saying, “Money doesn’t buy happiness”?
Happiness could not be found in resolutions because it is always uncertain to whether or not something will truly fulfil you. Surely, there is that peak of pleasure or satisfaction once we achieve our goals. All the hard work and determination finally paid off after all. However, it just goes downhill from there.
Materialistic values and goals depreciate over time. Eventually, we’ll come to realise that there are bigger problems that require solving, and we will move on to the next.
And still, with every strikethrough we add to our to-do list, it doesn’t complete us. The changes are clearly seen, the feelings don’t necessarily. We are blind to our victories because somehow another problem arises to be more worthy of our attention. Thus continues the mindset of “If I have so-and-so, I will be happy.”
Narcissism as an absolute
Narcissism is selfishness levelled up.
People with narcissistic tendencies feel entitled. They are so infatuated with the lies they make themselves believe just to feel loved. They place themselves on a pedestal that is admirable and unshakeable to uphold their self-esteem.
The thing about narcissists is that they are often indifferent in their interactions with others. If someone else were to not share the same values as they do or to make decisions seemingly out of the ordinary, they are seen as inferior or wicked.
We can’t confuse ideals with ideology. No one should be held contempt for choosing to live a life that’s different to our own. Differences aren’t always needed to be understood. We just have to respect it.
Seeing things in absolutes is common in people who suffer from long-term narcissistic personality disorder wherein the sufferer is unable to properly grasp empathy. They dream of power and success, mistaking their ambitions as the only way to being fulfilled.
Narcissists do not care for anyone, except themselves. They mimic love, they don’t really feel it.
Depression is more than just sadness. It is an emotional void.
To cope with that void, we want to see things in very specific (and easier) ways. Hence, all-or-nothing thinking: “Nothing makes me happy!” or “If so-and-so does not make me happy, nothing will.”
At its core, it is plain exaggeration. A person suffering from depression, however, strongly believes in the drastic things they say. You don’t feel very much alive in depressive episodes. It’s been described to be akin to survival. The walls around you seem closing in and all you are left with is to make sense of everything.
How to work through absolute thinking
Solution #1: Practice empathy
We can be surprisingly better at assessing other’s problems. We aren’t directly affected by it thus, we aren’t as emotionally invested as they are. Nothing restrains us from putting aside emotions in favour of logical critical thinking.
Empathy is about putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. The idea is to not only exercise care and gratitude but to also train ourselves to take into account of a situation at its entirety. We’ll see things for what they really are; make thorough evaluations of the pros and cons, and above all, we give extra emphasis to the most prudent solutions.
Having empathy is all about careful consideration. Shifting blame is off the table. We aren’t just thinking of someone else’s emotions, we are also weighing the factors that are presented to them as troubles.
We can’t handle every adversity in a similar manner. Every problem is as individual as the person is so you can’t deal things in absolutes. You get the idea.
Solution #2: Stop critical self-talk
Talk things out with yourself; don’t punish yourself.
It is easier said than done. After all, we are our best/worst critic. Self-talk has a purpose. We tell ourselves obvious factual information to sustain motivation and to be wise about it.
Negative, constructive self-talk can work inversely. Our faulty reasonings can cause us to deviate from what is true and accurate, leaning more towards assumptions. For example, we may say things that are cruel, like, “I failed a subject so, I could never be good at it.”
At its core, self-talk encompasses self-blame, too. We see things in absolutes because it is easier to point fingers and get mad than to admit that (a lot of) struggle has to be put in before any improvement can be seen.
Replace the bad thoughts with optimism. It is best to take a positive or neutral approach towards solving a problem. You can always halt your self-talk by finding something nice you could do for yourself; something to help keep your mind off worrying.
Solution #3: Read self-help materials
Self-help books and articles are written in a way to address specific, general problems. Authors of self-help content put things into perspective for their readers by telling things as they are, and not what things look like.
I can’t guarantee that you will find the answers to all your worries. But as with all books, you will come to learn of newer concepts that will allow you to formulate your own philosophies and applications.
Also, read just because.
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