Life in the Gray Area

Are you an all-or-nothing thinker? Do you prefer to see things as black or white, good or bad, all or nothing? Is it hard for you to accept or sometimes even see the gray, the nuances in a situation?

That’s me.

Okay, well, not totally.

(Side note: See what I just did there? I combatted an all-or-nothing concept – “I’m a black and white thinker” – with some reality that reflects the truer, gray nature of things – “I’m not totally a black and white thinker; just sometimes.”)

Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself. (Stick with me through the next section…it’s background info for the meat of the post.)

What am I talking about?

Dichotomous, or polarized thinking (the fancy and slightly briefer terms for all-or-nothing thinking) is something I really struggle with. Like, a lot a lot. I’ve been working on it for years, though, ever since I came to realize (with the help of my counselor) how truly engrained it was in my thinking patterns.

Polarized thinking is one of several cognitive distortions. In laymen’s terms, a cognitive distortion is a way of thinking (thus “cognitive”) that is twisted and not lined up with reality in some way (thus “distortion”).

Distorted thoughts often feel like reality.

I would guess cognitive distortions are behind those “realists” I know who are actually pessimists in disguise. I used to be one of them. I thought I promoted reality over unrealistic hope or despair, and just posited that reality simply sucked. The truth is that I had very distorted ways of viewing reality. Reality can suck at times, sure. But saying it always sucks? Not only is that not realistic, but it’s a pretty obvious case of polarized thinking.

Polarized thinking makes our lives easier. But it also hurts us.

All or nothing thinking and depression

“Everyone hates me.” (or “No one loves me.”)

“I’m a failure.”

“I suck at life.” <—My own personal go-to.

“I can’t do anything right.”

Those are all examples of polarized thoughts. How can you tell if a thought is polarized? Check it – is it 100% accurate, or is there some wiggle room in there for the opposite to be at least slightly true? For example, I am 99% positive at least one person loves you. That even if you’ve failed at many things, you have not failed at everything. That you don’t suck at everything involved with life. That you can do some things right.

Those examples flow off the tongue more smoothly and easily than the reality I stated below them. Polarized thinking doesn’t require as much thought. It’s easy. And easy is comfortable.

Yet polarized thinking is closely tied to depression. One article on Psychology Today is even titled “To be polarized is to be paralyzed“. Polarized thoughts feed us head-first into the mouth of the depression monster. Read more on all-or-nothing thinking and depression.

This is where I am

As I talked about last week, I’m going through a period that I’ve been describing as being “on the struggle bus“. The fact that I’m even using that description (instead of saying “I’m depressed”) is a huge victory for me. It’s an indicator that I’m not throwing out the white flag and simply letting depression consume me; instead, I’m fighting it.

But I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle.

Over the past four weeks my symptoms have slowly worsened. Yesterday I slept for 19.5 hours, only to be followed by 12 hours last night and into today. Crying spells are increasing, each one bringing with it passive thoughts of suicide.

The good news is that the fight is slowing depression’s gain on my life. In the past, I would be doing much worse than I am now after four weeks of symptoms. Yet things are not headed in the right direction.

Okay, so what does this have to do with polarized thinking?

Black + white = gray area

Where black and white meet, I find chaos in the form of uncertainty

I’m living in the gray area

It’s usually easy for me to say I’m either doing “well” or I’m “depressed”. Even though I can often point out nuances in either situation that don’t fit the description of “well” or “depressed” perfectly, overall I can describe my status in one word.

But I can’t do that right now.

How am I doing? “I’m struggling” is the best descriptor I can think of.

But I feel as though that requires an explanation. I’m not totally depressed. I still have many moments (such as the one during which I’m writing this post) where I feel “not sad” and even kinda hopeful. I have times where I’m able to laugh. I’m only mostly not functioning right now (unable to take care of personal hygiene, chores, and work).

I’m experiencing a very in-your-face example of life in the gray area. I can’t define it without describing both the white and the black. Its grayness simply can’t be ignored.

And you know what? I hate it.

There’s so much uncertainty. If I’m depressed, I know what to expect for the most part. If I’m doing well, I know what to expect for the most part. But right now, I have no idea from one day to the next – or even from one hour to the next – how I’m going to be feeling. Life feels exceedingly unpredictable right now. And I don’t like it.

So am I encouraging polarization in my life?

Obviously, as I’ve been fighting the depression, I’ve been trying to avoid the gray area in an effort to remain on the “good” side of things.

But symptoms are worsening. Which leads to more and more times where I begin to think I want to give up. Stop fighting. Let the depression win. Whatever that entails.

And that makes me wonder:

Am I giving in to the depression in order to avoid the discomfort that living in the gray area causes?

I really don’t know the answer to that question. But it does make me wonder. I mean, if it’s happening, it’s definitely happening on a subconscious level. But regardless, it’s something to think about.

Life IS shades of gray. It simply is. Very few things are black and white. I know that…on an intellectual level. But in practice, I think I still view the world as black and white way more than it is.

Join the conversation in the comments section below!

Do you struggle with polarized thinking? How do you find polarized thinking showing up in your own life? 

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