When we look through the Black and White Lens, all incoming information is filtered into one of two categories; the black or the white. All traces of variability, partial credit, “kinda sorta” (or “ish”-ness, as a friend of mine used to say) are gone and we are left only with two extremes. The Black and White Lens may also be referred to as the “All or Nothing Lens,” because not only are the two categories in complete contrast to one another, but also because only ONE of them is desirable. The other, unfortunately, is representative of relative worthlessness. Now you might be asking, “well, why would it do any harm to separate our view of ourselves or our lives into just two categories, without any shades of gray?…I mean that sounds neat, organized and simple!” Well, this is a very good question, and the answer reveals a twofold problem.
First, the Black and White Lens sections are not equally divided, as they are in the black and white cookies displayed above (and yes, this is a veiled Seinfeld reference for those of you who care and/or remember); instead, imagine that these cookies have just a tiny sliver of vanilla frosting (say about 1% of the whole cookie) and that the remaining 99% is chocolate (totally bad analogy if you love chocolate; if you do, then just swap the flavors!). So, if we imagine that the desirable portion of the cookie occupies only 1% of it, then the overwhelming majority of it (99%, to be precise) is going to be undesirable. Thus, there is a 99% likelihood that when you look at yourself or your life or your future through the Black and White Lens, you will see something undesirable. So, if we have to view ourselves and our experience as falling into either one miniscule and positive category or one huge and negative category, here are some of the options we will find on our menu:
- success or FAILURE
- smart or STUPID
- loveable or UNLOVEABLE
- beautiful or HIDEOUS
- winner or LOSER
- ecstatic or SUICIDAL
Starting to see some problems associated with viewing life through the Black and White Lens? Good! Along these same lines, imagine the desirable category as an exclusive, country club which is very hard to get into and very easy to get kicked out of, and the undesirable category as complete and utter rejection from the club altogether. Honestly, just writing this is making me feel a bit scared, bummed and exhausted. I mean, I am not a fan of feeling rejected or worthless.
The second biggest problem with looking through the Black and White Lens is that it VERY RARELY PROVIDES US WITH AN ACCURATE OR HELPFUL REFLECTION OF REALITY. Although there certainly are some “pass/fail” circumstances in life (you either get the job you have interviewed for or you don’t, the person you want to date wishes to go out with you or not, you are pregnant or you are not), such absolutes are simply quite rare in nature. For example, take a moment and look at the floor in the room you are in right now. Is it clean or dirty? Clean, you say? Does that mean you could not find a speck of dust on it? Of course not. Dirty, you say? Does that mean the filth is piled five feet high? I should hope not! (If it is, however, it may be a good time to take a break from the computer and get out the vacuum…just bookmark this site before you leave).
And even in the above “pass/fail” examples, sometimes the person who doesn’t hire you really likes you anyway and ends up giving your resume to someone you does hire you, and sometimes the person who says no to your date invitation today changes their mind tomorrow (and perhaps again the next day!), and the home pregnancy test might be incorrect, or might yield a different result in 2 weeks. So, even when there are what appear to be Black and White circumstances in life, it is typically more helpful, and accurate, for us to look for the shades of gray, the wiggle room, the at least partial degree to which we have met a goal, versus simply viewing things in terms of success or failure. This is true because doing the latter is generally a bummer, and because doing so is more likely to give rise to negative thoughts, which gives rise to negative feelings, which gives rise to behaviors that themselves will more strongly determine a negative outcome (giving up, quitting, vowing never to ask anyone else out again, resigning yourself to a bleak future, etc.).
I will explain the way in which our initial reactions and interpretations of ourselves and our lives leads to this chain reaction of feelings and behavior in much greater detail later. I will also proceed, in my next post, to further discuss the difficulties we face when looking through the Black and White Lens, and, better yet, offer several effective techniques for cleaning the lint off this lens (or removing it altogether), and thereby seeing yourself and your life in a more accurate, vibrant, fair and constructive manner. For now, however, I just want you to have a basic understanding of how looking through the Black and White Lens can affect you, and how doing so tends to all but ensure that you are going to end up in a less positive place than if you had not looked through it.
And finally, before you move on to whatever it is you were going to do next in your life (sweep the floor, get some cookies, watch Seinfeld re-runs, etc.), I would like you to simply pause and reflect on a few of the following questions. And I will give you a little tip. If you actually write down your answers to these questions, the insights you get will stay with you even longer. More on that later:
- Does the concept of the Black and White Lens make sense to me?
- Can I see how looking through this lens is more likely to make me feel sad, scared or mad about myself or my life or my future?
- What are some areas in my life in which I might actually be looking though the Black and White Lens right now?
- How accurate/inaccurate are some of the interpretations I have seen myself make while looking through the Black and White Lens?
- How might cleaning this lens, or removing it, help me view myself, my life and my future in a more constructive or helpful way?
Thank you for reading, have a great rest of the day, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon.