The Comfort of Black and White.
"How can donuts be okay/acceptable/good/notbad in MY grey? That does not make sense and trying to get used to it makes my brain hurt sometimes. "
Most of us can admit, in some area of our lives, we are very black and white in our thinking. It’s either gotta be this way or that way. There is no in-between. But why are we like this? What is so hard about the grey?
I’ll tell you my theory: There is no way to judge yourself in the grey.
Follow me here- with black and white thinking, there is a set of “rules” that you are forced to live by. There is a right and a wrong. When you are following those guidelines- you know whether or not You are doing good or bad. And I think we crave knowing whether or not we are doing good or bad. Do we get to give ourselves a check mark for today or do we need a little self-blame and guilt to “motivate” ourselves to do better tomorrow? Only the black and white rules can answer that question. We need to know, deep down, “Am I good or bad?”
Maybe this goes all the way back to smiley or frowny faces by our names on Pre-K chalkboards. Certainly it comes from letter grades from the time we are able to perform. At all times, we want to know how we are doing (especially in comparison to others). Black and white thinking gives us that answer we are looking for.
I used to have very black and white thinking when it comes to my diet, for instance. If I was following the Whole30 diet (which I did, for a very long time) I was doing good. I was good. Whew- I felt relieved. Check mark. Gold star. There are very strict rules to follow that someone else made up (so I didn’t have to be the decider of the black and white) and it was very easy to determine if I was following them correctly. I was good when I was following the rules. I was bad if I was not. I knew where I stood and could judge myself accordingly.
But here’s the thing- I don’t even think this is necessarily a quest for perfection. Even when we can say, “I’m doing bad on my diet” (followed by a string of negative self talk) we still, in some weird way, are okay with that- BECAUSE AT LEAST WE KNOW WHERE WE STAND. And again, we have a deep desire to know where we are. It is all about knowing how to rate/grade/judge yourself. The grey causes anxiety because if you don’t know what the rules are, you don’t know how to make a plan (and don’t we all need to think we have a plan for everything). We are not in control without the black and white.
I think this is why the concept of Food Freedom is so hard for so many people (myself included). There are not strict, universal rules that someone else has decided that you should live by that will tell you if you are doing it right or not. You have to make the rules for yourself and that includes allowing room for some grey. It is scary and does not feel natural. It is ingrained in us that donuts are bad, always. How can donuts be okay/acceptable/good/notbad in MY grey? That does not make sense and trying to get used to it makes my brain hurt sometimes.
Living in the grey is like being in uncharted territory. You do not know what you are dealing with there. There is no ranking system, nothing there to tell you where you stand, no way to know if you are doing good or bad. This constant judgment of ourselves even makes self hatred more acceptable than not knowing (it is more comfortable to think the usual “I ate a donut, I’m bad” than to think “I ate a donut and even though everything I’ve ever known says I’m bad, I’m actually….okay?”). For many people, it is easier to beat yourself up for eating donuts than to even imagine food being a neutral thing that has no moral value. No rules around food is scary.
I honestly think this is something we are all struggling with right now. We are living through completely uncharted territory and people are freaking out because black and white has changed into grey with little warning, and we are desperately looking around for something to tell us whether we are doing okay. Am I handling this like I should be?
Before, not being productive was bad. But now, people are saying it is okay to not be productive? What does that mean?? How can I be good and unproductive- those two do not match. What about if I stop working out because my gym is closed? Am I good or bad for not focusing on fitness during quarantine? Again- normally that is a black and white thing for people, and we are being challenged to live in the grey.
I repeat this almost daily- self awareness is half of the work in therapy/life, and I believe that applies here too. Knowing and acknowledging that some of our anxiety, some of our unsettled feelings, could possibly be coming from not knowing how to tell if we are doing good right now is important. Not knowing how to process the rules having changed. I’m asking you to sit with that if you are feeling overwhelmed, reminding yourself that this is new and we have no measures. Wherever you are and however you are taking things a day at a time- you are doing okay. You are good. And grey is okay.
*Update on 1/27/2021 -This is the first January that I haven't done #JanuaryWhole30 in several years. It has been glorious. I've eaten several donuts. I have no desire to ever force myself back into those strict black/white rules again. It has taken me a long time and a lot of internal work to get here- but God, I'm thankful for it. I'm in the grey and I know I am good.
You can get there too! The first step- walk away from the rules! And then...get yourself a therapist :)