Black and White Thinking
I recently got a message from one of my students, a fellow fat-positive/anti-diet coach, who was surprised to hear me mention on a recent podcast episode that one of the students in my Advanced Certification in Feminist Coaching is a weight loss coach.
My student wanted to know, completely reasonably: How can you, as an anti-diet coach, train someone knowing that they will likely call themselves a feminist weight loss coach with your “blessing?”
The logic behind this question makes total sense and I wasn’t surprised to be asked it!
If you believe that diet culture is anti-feminist…and you believe that any weight loss coaching is a part of diet culture…then, you are likely to believe that any weight loss coaching is anti-feminist and that admitting a weight loss coach into a feminist certification program goes against the values of the program.
Notice I said the logic makes sense – which it does, if you begin with certain premises.
But those premises and that logic are both characterized by black and white thinking.
Black and white thinking is usually defined by pairs of opposites, such as:
I’m 100% feminist or I’m anti-feminist.
I’m on the wagon or I’m off the wagon.
I’m a good person or a bad person.
People are inherently kind or people are inherently selfish.
But it can also show up as believing there are only two choices to something.
No one coaching weight loss can be a feminist, and no feminist can coach on weight loss.
Either I get my way or they get their way.
I can only do one of these two things.
I can only win or lose.
Black and white thinking is pervasive.
It’s a big part of many religions: Good vs. evil, virtue vs. sin, God vs. Satan, etc
It’s also a part of some philosophical traditions: The idea that we can determine whether things are good or bad, right or wrong, morally correct or immoral.
It’s certainly a part of politics, no matter what side of the spectrum you’re on: We’re right and they’re wrong, any idea they have must be bad, all of our ideas must be good.
And it’s woven into the fabric of social justice movements too. All liberals care about justice and all conservatives are all out for themselves. All liberals are brainwashed and all conservatives are free-thinkers. (Both sides share black and white thinking as an issue!)
It’s everywhere because it comes so naturally to the human brain.
For starters, black and white thinking goes along with a form of tribalism, in an anthropological sense – when we see ourselves as an in-group, we then see anyone outside the group as an outsider and we find it easier to fixate on their shortcomings while overlooking our own. In this way, it provides a sense of cohesion in groups.
It also provides our brains with certainty. Brains LOVE certainty because they love to preserve energy.
Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to wake up every morning with no idea what was going on, where you were, who was friend or foe, and what was bad or good?
Existential crises don’t particularly lend themselves to, you know, getting out of bed and eating breakfast.
Shades of grey are confusing for brains. Examining situations and problems from multiple angles requires a lot of energy.
Black and white thinking, on the other hand, is simple. It’s efficient. It’s a mental shortcut to certainty – and we know how much brains love shortcuts.
But of course, black and white thinking comes with a lot of downsides.
When we believe that everyone is either good or bad, or on our side or against us – then we set ourselves up to feel alienated from anyone who doesn’t behave exactly the way we want them to. We have no capacity or willingness to understand or accept those different from us.
Black and white thinking not only destroys our capacity to exercise compassion and acceptance toward those who are different from us, but it also leads to despair and hopelessness and shame about OURSELVES.
Since we are ALL complicated people with a spectrum of qualities, we can almost never live up to our own black and white, good and bad standards. When we train ourselves to react to moral ambiguity in others with criticism and judgment, we train ourselves to react to our own humanity in that way – to see ourselves as bad, unworthy, harmful, a failure.
We interpret everything in our lives through that black and white, right and wrong lens and miss out on all complexity and nuance.
And of course, this destroys our capacity for resilience, growth, and change since all of these things all require discomfort, failure, and shades of grey.
Another downside to black and white thinking is that it hampers our creativity and problem-solving.
It makes us think that something is either working perfectly or not working at all. That we have only two completely incompatible options for moving forward, and that there’s no nuance in either option.
When you start looking for black and white thinking, you will find it everywhere.
Are you telling yourself that you have to quit your job in order to take any action on starting your dream business? That’s an example of black and white thinking where you’ve created a false dichotomy: Work for someone else 100% vs. work for yourself 100%.
Are you telling yourself you can only be happy if you have a very specific kind of life?
That you have to cut someone out of your life because they did something you dislike?
That you have to give up on a dream because you failed at doing one thing?
These are all signs that you are currently in black and white thinking – and that there is almost always another option available to you
The more you open your mind to different possibilities, the more nuance you can see in a situation, the more creative your solutions and ideas become. And the easier this will ALL be when you aren’t judging yourself as well.
Stepping out of black and white thinking has huge implications for your life and your impact on the world.
In the case of my certification program, it allowed me to see that I would much rather teach someone who is selling weight loss coaching about fat bias, size discrimination, white supremacy, and all the other aspects of intersectional feminism I teach, than have a purity test for the coaches I would consider educating and refuse to teach those who don’t agree with me fully. If someone is going to be a weight loss coach, what do I care more about? Proving an ideological point, or getting the best opportunity I can to impact their coaching work and the impact they will have on their future clients?
And taking it even further: The weight loss coach in question in my certification is a woman of color who developed the work she teaches from her own life experiences. Do I have the authority to tell a woman of color who has a different approach to her feminist work than I do that she is wrong? Do I have the authority to tell any woman that? Am I the arbiter of who gets to call themselves a feminist?
I think many of us WANT to be the arbiter of these things. But I don’t. I used to, very much so. I spent about 20 years trying to be the arbiter of what everyone around me was allowed to think, feel, or believe. It was exhausting, and a huge distraction from the work I was able to do in the world when I focused on the people who wanted to learn from me and be in dialogue with me instead of the people who didn’t.
Ultimately, I care more about the impact this work has on people and their work in the world than I do about requiring people to agree with me or worrying about what people will think about my brand if it’s attached to something or someone they don’t like.
I had a good example in this. My teacher, Brooke Castillo, built a business that includes a lot of weight loss coaching. But she still certified me as a coach and Master Coach, even though I don’t agree with that branch of her work and I teach the opposite.
And I’m so glad she did, as are the thousands of women who have improved their lives with my work, even though I didn’t learn it from a “pure” feminist or anti-diet source.
Ultimately these things are all judgment calls. Would I admit someone into my certification who thought women shouldn’t be allowed to learn to read or have the right to vote? Probably not. That’s the whole point of this teaching! I don’t believe that if I have any restrictions on who I would admit based on certain unacceptable disagreements with what I teach then I have to have *every* possible restriction based on anyone who disagrees with me on anything. Because life is not black and white.
Those of us attracted to self-development tend to be attracted to rules, to systems, to having The Answer That Solves Everything. We want certainty. But the real work is to be open to uncertainty, to be comfortable with using our discernment and accepting that other people may not agree – or that we may change our minds later too. That’s actually the deepest lesson I teach in the Advanced Certification in Feminist Coaching itself: How to move beyond the “certainty” of certain coaching systems or theories and into the ability to hold the complexity and nuance of the human experience in all the many ways it can be lived.
We are raised to think that grey is boring, dull, lifeless. But shades of grey are full of nuance, beauty, compassion, and growth.
So the next time you feel yourself in black and white thinking, ask yourself:
- How could the opposite/other side be true?
- Where could I be wrong about this?
- What could a third option be?
- How could we split the difference here?
- How could both of these things be true?
- Is there a third explanation or idea I’m missing?
Remember that we only cling to black and white thinking because of what we make it mean about ourselves if we are wrong – that we will think of ourselves as wrong or bad if we change our minds in the future. But being wrong, changing your mind, or seeing more than one side of things doesn’t mean you were stupid or bad or unworthy before.
It just means you’re growing and evolving, and thank goodness – because the other alternative is just stagnation. And that’s not the kind of life you want to live.