April 8, 2019

How Black-&-White Thinking Trips us Up—& Keeps us from our Goals.

It seems to be a distinctly American form of self-sabotage: the trap of black-and-white thinking.

We believe in “all-or-nothing,” “make-or-break,” “go for broke,” and a thousand other ways to ignore the place between those two extremes—something Eastern philosophers call the “middle path.”

“Our western mind lacking all culture in this respect, has never yet devised a concept, not even a name for the ‘union of opposites through the middle path,’ that most fundamental item of inward experience which could respectably be set against the Chinese concept of Tao.” ~ Carl Jung

Okay, so what does any of this have to do with manifesting our destinies?

In my psychotherapeutic practice, I see client after client falling prey to black-and-white thinking to the extent that it paralyzes them. By this I mean, they are people who are capable of dreaming a big dream, but become too intimidated by the dream itself to take the middle path to realize it.

One man in particular comes to mind. A gregarious, intelligent, and well-spoken person in his 60s, he came to me after he lost his wife to a four-year battle with breast cancer. We both thought he was there to grieve. Although that was one of the tasks at hand, we quickly realized that there were even older issues, one of which was a pattern of repeated failures throughout his professional life. Over the years, he had had enormous expectations of himself—so overwhelming that he would unconsciously undermine his progress whenever he started to really get some traction by suddenly refusing to return phone calls, sitting in hotel rooms by himself for days smoking weed instead of meeting with colleagues, and even having a long-term affair with his coworker that ended his career and his first marriage. He felt, he said, that he could never live up to his true potential, and in his despair over his perceived inadequacies, he turned to avoidance and destructive distraction.

We came to see that he was setting himself up for failure by being unwilling to be a beginner, to take the interim steps, or, in other words, to live for a while in the (scary) grey areas between black and white. Mind you, he had no idea he was doing this, and when we finally managed to get it on the table, he was horrified.

“Why would I make those choices over and over again? Why would anybody?” he said.

One of the reasons is our black-and-white mindset. As entitled Westerners, we’ve been taught that if we can dream it, we can have it. The Kardashians are wealthy and famous with what seems like minimal effort, why can’t we be? And if we can’t, doesn’t that mean there’s something wrong with us?

The only thing that’s wrong with us is how we’re perceiving reality. To use another pop culture reference, I quote Lady Gaga’s Grammy acceptance speech when she said, “I’ve worked hard for a long time, and it’s not about, you know…it’s not about winning. But what it’s about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. There’s a discipline for passion. And it’s not about how many times you get rejected or you fall down or you’re beaten up. It’s about how many times you stand up and are brave and you keep on going.”

In other words, she is saying she had a big dream, let’s call that white, and she had to start at the beginning to work toward it, let’s call that black. All the things that happened in between are the indispensable grey. The boring phone calls, the failed auditions, the endless rehearsals, but also the wild hope, the feeling of overcoming one’s limitations, and the joy of having something that is bigger than ourselves to steer toward each day.

The grey is where all the good stuff actually happens. This is the part that many of us miss.

We misunderstand success as attaining a goal, and think we are not wholly ourselves or wholly inhabiting our destiny before we reach that goal. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in pursuit of the goal that we become the fullest expression of ourselves. That is when we deepen, expand, grow wise, and our soul is seeded and watered.

That’s all fine and well, but it sounds a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Black, white, grey, whatever—what are we supposed to actually do?

Like Lady Gaga says, it starts with a dream. Dreaming dreams is a highly underrated pursuit in my opinion, and one of the very finest parts of life. We shouldn’t dream them because we are obligated to discover what we’re meant to do (also mistaken in our culture for be, as in, I am a banker, I am a chef, and even, I am a rock star), but simply because we are gifted with the ability to dream, and it’s our dreams that help us manifest our singular kind of human magic.

So let yourself dream. Dream a lot, dream in silence, dream out loud. Doesn’t matter what your age or situation may be, it only matters that you set your heart free. (A good tool to help with dreaming is Julia Cameron’s marvelous book The Artist’s Way—even if you’re not an artist.)

Now, settle on a dream that seems enormous but potentially doable. This can be either something you pursue for a living or something that, out of practical considerations, is better off—for now—happening in tandem with whatever you do to sustain yourself financially.

The example I always give to clients is my own dream of writing a book. I was 22 when the idea first came to me and 32 by the time I felt equipped to attack it. By then, I had freaked myself out to the point that I knew if I didn’t come up with a strategy, I was sunk. My plan was simple; I decided I would write a page a day for 365 days, and at the end of one year I would have a book. And, despite breaking my own promise to myself here and there, I wrote one page most days of an entire year, at the end of which I had a book.

Was it a great book? Was it finished book? No and no. But it was a solid foundation upon which to build out the next pieces of my dream until I did indeed have a finished, and perhaps not great, but respectable book.

Wow, I said to myself. If I can do this, anything is possible.

And that is how it works. We dream a big dream, and then we bring in the focus to figure out what the next concrete steps should be in service of it. For my client, whose dream was to be a public advocate for those suffering from cancer, it was updating his resume. After that was done, we focused on the very next logical step, all the while keeping our ultimate goal in mind, but not allowing ourselves to get too caught up in the endgame so we could stay on task. Just like writing a page a day. Together, we found the grey area.

Is my client now a renowned figure in the world of cancer advocacy? Nope. But he is feeling a lot more purposeful and hopeful than he was a year ago or, perhaps, ever. And he has a reason to get up in the morning, which is both his beautiful dream and the tasks at hand needed to accomplish it.

I believe this approach will work for anyone, and it can be applied to just about anything: learning another language, reclaiming our physical health, finding a partner, eating more consciously, redirecting our career, developing stronger relationships, or going on a journey of self-discovery.

All we need is:

  1. A goal or dream.
  2. To break down the steps needed to get to our goal into pieces that are small enough to do in a single day.
  3. To sustain our dedication long enough that we get somewhere that feels meaningful.

Truth be told, that old American myth that we can do whatever we want to do isn’t quite true. Depending on our circumstances, we all have limitations. But we can do so much more than we imagine.

If we set our egos aside and do the work, we can unchain ourselves from drudgery and feelings of futility any time we choose.

We can unfold our wings and fly down the middle path until we see what beautiful thing lies at the end of it—and beyond.

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