Dear Dr. Yael,
I struggle with many issues. I have black and white thinking. I unfortunately see the negative in things. I am very sensitive and personalize everything. Baruch Hashem I have a good marriage, but I do have issues with my in-law children. I get easily insulted and I need help to see things differently. My husband feels I need to be less sensitive. Please help me work on my thinking.
Dear Too Sensitive,
Thank you for your letter. You have already taken the first step to change as you realize there is an issue and want to work on it. Most people who are black and white thinkers do not usually see that they may be misinterpreting situations. It is extremely commendable that you have worked on yourself to understand yourself as well as your strengths and weaknesses.
Black and white thinking is a thought pattern that causes people to think in absolutes. For example, you may think you are “always” right or the “worst person ever.” Black and white thinking is considered to be a cognitive distortion by psychologists because it stops people from seeing life as it truly is, complex, uncertain, and always changing. Thinking in extremes is generally harmful as most of the time we need to find the middle ground. In order to stop black and white thinking, individuals need to become more flexible in their thinking (and less rigid). Using “all or nothing” statements can cause people to become depressed. It is important to challenge “all or nothing” statements as they are usually not true and challenging them can help people reframe their thinking.
As you mentioned, black and white thinking can have a negative effect on relationships. Normal conflicts in relationships can be grossly misunderstood with black and white thinking as you will often draw the wrong conclusions about other people and miss opportunities to talk things out and compromise. In order to begin to change you will need to become aware of when you are doing this. Watch out for words like “never” or “always.” If you hear yourself saying these words or similar words, remind yourself to replace them with other words such as “maybe” or “sometimes.” As noted above, cognitive reframing will be a very important and helpful technique. If you notice that you are being extreme or thinking in an extreme manner, try to challenge yourself. Take a step back and think about why you are thinking what you are thinking and if perhaps there can be another viewpoint that you did not consider. If you cannot come up with other viewpoints, maybe ask a friend who is better with flexible thinking or ask your husband if he can think of other reasons why something may have happened. It is imperative that you repeat other viewpoints over and over until you feel yourself believing them. Being a rigid thinker will stop you from seeing other viewpoints, so you may need to challenge yourself often in the beginning and talk yourself into other viewpoints in order to calm down (just like you likely have talked yourself into your own viewpoint until you become upset).
You will likely benefit from seeking professional help. Try to find someone who is an expert in cognitive behavioral therapy as this is the mode of therapy that will likely work best for your situation. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) will help you learn to recognize cognitive distortions in your thinking that create difficulty for you and will teach you techniques as to how to change these distortions. It will also help you have a better understanding of the behavior and motivation of others, which will help you not get as upset by what others do. CBT can help teach you to use problem-solving skills to manage difficult situations as well as assist you in building your confidence in general and in your own abilities. Lastly, CBT can help you move from extreme thinking to more flexible thinking, which will likely help you not get upset with your in-law children. With the right help, you can learn how to replace extreme thinking with healthier, more helpful approaches.
Hatzlacha in this challenging situation and kudos to you for taking the steps needed to improve the relationships in your life!