Black Or White

David Burns is one of my favorite cognitive-therapy authors. He wrote, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. I love his list of ten cognitive distortions. Very helpful. One of the cognitive distortions is All-or-Nothing Thinking. Burns argues that in the real world, there are very few absolutes. The world is not made up of black and white. It consists of innumerable shades of gray. "If you try to force your experiences into absolute categories," says Burns, "you will be constantly depressed because your perceptions will not conform to reality. You will set yourself up for discrediting yourself endlessly because whatever you do will never measure up to your exaggerated expectations."

All or nothing. Black or white. Really, it is a form of overgeneralization.

There are consequences to the accuracy of your thinking. Alistair Ostell, a researcher in England, tested school principles for how black or white their thinking was. Here's what he found: People who frequently thought in black and white terms had more emotional problems and more health problems.

People who thought in more shades of gray were less stressed by their jobs, enjoyed better health, and got more enjoyment from their work.

You can learn to catch yourself making this thought mistake (All or Nothing Thinking), and when you do, you will avoid some negative emotion you don't need.

I once did a speech in Toastmasters (a club that helps you learn to speak in public) on the day before Saint Patrick's Day. It was my tenth speech in their program, called the Inspirational Speech. I wrote and memorized a speech about the story of Saint Patrick, and then rehearsed it thirty-seven times start to finish flawlessly. I actually counted because I wanted to see how many times it would take before I knew the talk by heart.

A key element of my speech was the mystery: I didn't reveal who I was talking about (Saint Patrick) until near the end.

But the Toastmaster that day (the Master of Ceremonies), in her opening remarks, told the brief story of Saint Patrick — essentially summarizing my talk before I gave it. That really threw me off. When I got up to speak, I stumbled and then said, "The Toastmaster gave away my punch line." Then I felt embarrassed that I'd criticized her and then I was really distracted and couldn't think of the next line of my speech. It was a lousy speech and I'm sure it was rather uncomfortable for the audience to endure.

In the Toastmasters Clubs, after your speech, someone comes up to evaluate your speech. My evaluator tore me apart.

For someone who had been anxious about speaking, this hit me pretty hard. When I was feeling embarrassed and ashamed of myself and really down about the whole thing, I decided to check my thoughts for unrealistic thinking, and found I had two thoughts that qualified as irrational, and they were the main source of my bad feelings: "I'm not cut out for speaking," and "I'm not an inspirational speaker." Both of these are the mistake of all-or-nothing thinking.

After I uncovered those, I realized I had simply made a preparation mistake: I memorized my speech. Usually in speaking, memorizing the whole speech is a bad idea. I also realized that if I ever had an element of mystery in a speech again, I would check with the master of ceremonies to make sure nobody else was going to give away my punch line, or I would just do without the mystery element.

In other words, after realizing that my fretting and negative emotions were being generated by unreasonable thoughts (thoughts containing cognitive distortions), I stopped fretting and actually solved the problem. I decided what to do differently in the future that would prevent such an embarrassing incident from happening again.

I became much less bothered by my "failed" speech after uncovering the two all-or-nothing assumptions I had made. My thinking became more rational and more effective because I knew what to look for. And now you do too.

See a list of 22 thought mistakes to look for in your negative thoughts and learn how to use them.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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