Day 20: It’s not All That (or All Anything)

I’ve started several different blog posts today, unsure about what topic I wanted to pursue. I think this topic might be “it”, though.  That is, I think this post is going to make it to “The Show”  today, rather than being delegated to the Farm Team — the Drafts bin.

This Post with Good Prospects has to do with another cognitive distortion, another “psychological epidemic” of unhelpful thinking.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy calls this distortion “All-or-Nothing Thinking” (or “Black-and-White Thinking”)

Here’s a description,  from a hand-out I use on cognitive distortions:

All-or-Nothing Thinking (also known as “Black-and-White Thinking”)

With this distortion, things seem either all good or all bad, people are either perfect or failures, something new will either fix everything or be worthless. There is no middle ground; we place people and situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray, or allowing for complexities.  Watch out for absolute words like “always”, “never,” “totally,” etc. as indications of this kind of distortion.

Boy, a lot of people have a reaction when THIS ONE comes up.  As a matter of fact, people often say this (all-or-nothing) response:

I do that ALL THE TIME.

No, they don’t.  They have other types of thoughts, too. It just SEEMS like it’s all the time. And there’s the basis of All-or-Nothing thinking.

There are shades of gray, even when we are only noticing the black and white.

The reason that All-or-Nothing thinking became The Alpha Topic today is this:   I realized that All-or-Nothing thinking was the subtext of every other topic I was considering. One of those other topics was Fears about Fragility — how we can worry about our own fragility, other people’s fragility, and the fragility of connections with others — and how this affects how we are with others.  And I realized there was some Black-and-White thinking involved there, too. I realized this had to do with All-or-Nothing thinking about people and connections    — that they are either Fragile OR Resilient, not allowing for variations and shades of gray.

Hmmmm. I’ll tell you what I’m wondering right now, dear reader.

I’m wondering if I’m being confusing. I’m wondering if I’ve lost you.

Hey! That relates to both topics, I think — black-and-white thinking and fears about the fragility of connection.

Now that I’ve noticed that, I’m going to try to challenge some possible distortions.  Want to come along?

Okay, so maybe my writing DID get more confusing above.   That doesn’t mean there’s an All-or-Nothing switch, changing this post from Coherent to Incoherent.

Or from Useful to Useless. There are degrees of usefulness, aren’t there?  This post — and every other blog post in the Great Blogosphere —  is neither Completely Useful nor Completely Useless. Different readers will take different things away, from whatever they read.

Communication, in general, is not All-or-Nothing.  No matter what the form of communication — in blogs, in person, in writing, in speech — there’s no perfect communication of meaning. (In order to attain that, we’d all have to be mind-readers.)   There are so many shades of gray there — so many shifting variations and levels of understanding and being understood.

And if I did “lose” you, dear reader, that was — most likely — momentarily. Connections — of understanding, between people — don’t have to be perfect. There’s room for variation, for shifting degrees of engagement and disengagement.

Okay!  Thanks for reading. Because even though this blog post wasn’t All Coherent or All Useful or All Anything, it is this:

All done.

Categories: personal growth | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Day 20: It’s not All That (or All Anything)

  1. Love these thoughts! All were helpful!

  2. Ann, your blog is great, especially with it’s perplexities. Of course, “great” is an all or nothing statement and I happily stand by it. I did want to offer a couple of shades of grey though. I’d say communication, more frequently than we imagine, is not black and white, but communication often is black and white, all or nothing, and profoundly resistant to distortion. Such is the case when the message has a complete operational definition, and it’s scope of application is clearly and explicitly delimited. Of course in social discourse we often don’t want to, don’t bother to or can’t define things operationally and limit the scope of our comments, so that’s when things get grey and murky. It’s kind of fun poking around in those grey places because all sorts of interesting possibilities arise.

    A simple way to get to grey is to look at our own behavior through a finer grain lens, or set of lenses with various granularities. When we get closer to things that look the same at a distance, they tend to differentiate and we can see variety where before we only saw sameness.

  3. Marc, thank you so much for the compliment and for sharing your thoughts. Heeding my own invitation in Day 18 of this blog, I’m going to take this opportunity to ask for something I want, which is some clarification about what you wrote here, because I want to know more. Could you say more, if you are so inclined, about what you mean you say that communication is “profoundly resistant to distortion” and also give an example of “when the message has a complete operational definition”? That would be awesome! I am honored that you are reading, and your comments mean a lot to me.

    • No probWhat I mean is that some forms of communication are subject to wide interpretation because the words have multiple meanings, are context dependent, connote different things to different people and so on. When one is communicating in terms where it is difficult to fix a central meaning with surety and to defeat unintended readings, the author’s intended message is easily distorted. Similarly, when noise in the system interrupts or interferes with the signal, messages get distorted. By contrast, consider well designed pictographic road signs. These are read easily by millions of people of different ages, educations, backgrounds and so on. Their meaning is clear to almost all and poor weather conditions rarely interfere with the legibility of the sign to the point where it cannot be read and properly understood. I’m using the simple example of well designed traffic signs to suggest that some messages by design and execution are fairly difficult to distort, and others are quite easy.

      Here’s a gesture at what I mean by a complete operational definition, although I’m sure many folks will easily be able it to suggest ways in which is not complete and how it might be made further complete. 2+2=4. If we understand what two and four mean as integers, and that plus is the symbol we use to signify the addition of one integer to another, and that equals means the same as, then we have a complete definition of a mathematical equation. We know by reading it what it means. Of course some could say, well sometimes two plus two equals one. For example, when we add two quarts to two quarts we get one gallon. Of course, the response is that one gallon equals four quarts, and that the assertion that two plus two equals one in this case isn’t correct, because the gallon is a different unit of measure than a quart. So if one wanted to defeat in advance this sort of a response, one would say something like, two plus two equals four holding units of measure constant. One might also observe that use of the equation for the purposes of describing the effect of combining units of a given substance is an application of the formula, an operation beyond the mathematical statement itself. All that said, in daily life a statement like two plus two equals four is likely to be taken at face value most of the time, and not subject to distortions in transmission or interpretation. This is in part because there would be no particular reason not to take the statement at face value, and indeed failing to do so would be to throw out useful information.

      By contrast, take the statement “What do you think Suzy meant when she said that to Jim
      last Thursday?” If the person hearing that statement shared adequate context with the message sender and knew enough about the personality of the sender to accurately judge his or her intentions, the receiver might know whether this was a sentence to be taken at face value, and therefore invited a direct answer, or whether it was freighted and required a different sort of response. In this case the message would have a clear but tacit operational meaning. If the receiver didn’t share sufficient context or didn’t know the sender particularly well, and if the sender wanted to be properly understood, the sender would have to supply more information for the receiver to “get the message.”

      Hope this helps.

  4. Pingback: Day 86: Dear Readers, Non-Readers, and Everybody In Between | The Year of Living Non-Judgmentally

  5. Pingback: Day 932: What do you need? | The Year(s) of Living Non-Judgmentally

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