NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Why you shouldn’t always live by the rules

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

“I got told I’m a very black-and-white thinker. What does this mean?

Life is full of rules. Some of them are useful, like driving on the correct side of the road.

Others: less so.

Therapists distinguish between the “laws” we must live by, like which side of the road to drive on, and the beliefs we learn, from our family culture and experiences.

Some types of therapy really zero in on these beliefs, because they shape so much of our experience.

Our beliefs, if they’re excessively punitive, negative or inflexible can cause problems, excessive guilt, anxiety about rule breaking, inflexibility in relationships, for instance.

While it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that “overly strict” parenting is the cause, it’s not always that simple.

Black-and-white thinking is a way to describe people who rely excessively on rules, things are right or wrong, no if, buts or maybes.

They are unable to think about things that lie in the “grey zone” (although as someone once pointed out to me, in between black and white are all the colours of the rainbow, not grey.)

Being too rigid in a world that is unpredictable and constantly changing is generally going to cause problems.

Certainly relationships are hard if we have fixed ideas about what people should, or shouldn’t do.

Apart from extreme examples it’s actually pretty hard to define what right and wrong looks like in relationships.

The real problem, though is not being able to allow oneself to simply tune into one’s feelings about the situation, to follow our instincts, and to use our emotions not as the answer, but at least as useful information to help guide our decision-making.

Anxiety however, which often comes along with black-and-white thinking, also makes it hard to tune in to and trust our own responses, especially if we haven’t been encouraged or nurtured to do so.

What can you do if you feel you’re too much of a black-and-white thinker?

• Recognise that not all situations need a “right” and a “wrong”
• Learn some basic mindfulness skills, this can help us to tune into our own responses more quickly, and more effectively
• When you can, take time. Sleeping on it is actually good advice and with space to reflect it can be easier to listen to our own responses
• Be aware of the advice of others. It’s always easier to tell others what they “should” do (professional hazard) but one of the ways advice goes astray, is without being in the situation you don’t have the gut responses
• On the other hand, allow other points of view, be open to difference and others opinions, even if it feels hard – they might not be right, but other people can sometimes see things we can’t


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