Have you ever wondered why it’s more familiar for you to view things in extremes (good or bad, success or failure, smart or incompetent)? Or why the use of “and” when it comes to two conflicting emotions feels so difficult to hold? See some famously difficult ‘and’ statements below to know what I’m talking about:

“My parent’s limitations have caused me real pain in life, and I know they love me deeply.”

“I have made mistakes and hurt others, and I did the best I could with the information or tools I had at the time.”

“I love my child, and I miss my alone time and freedom.”

“I don’t understand or agree with this persons decision, and there must be value in it for them.”

It’s hard to get to that middle ground for many of us. When it comes to feeling more familiar with the act of seeing the world through an all-or-nothing or black-and-white lens, this is what we, ‘in the biz’, call a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that emphasize negative biases and develop over time as they get reinforced. Oftentimes, they are created to help us cope with challenging experiences- a survival mechanism. Outside of these distortions happening to everyone from time to time, people who often struggle with this type of binary thinking may have histories of anxiety, depression, or trauma. I use the term ‘struggle’ here because although this distortion may feel automatic (and thus, somewhat comfortable) it can contribute to a very limited view of the world and relationships.

What can begin as a simple mistake at work, can be internalized as a story of how terrible you are at your job, and then, a fear of being fired.  What can be a simple scheduling decision to postpone plans by a partner or friend can be translated to validation that you can’t actually rely on anybody but yourself, or you are unwanted. Or, if someone makes a decision we don’t understand, perhaps it’s easier to entirely categorize this as “stupid” or inadequate, rather than search for the value in it.

Holding multiple truths at once can be challenging for all of us sometimes- and particularly for trauma survivors. In general, the use of ‘and’ (for example: this person has hurt my feelings, and I know they care about me and likely didn’t mean to) requires exhausting additional mental resources, rather than falling back into comfy ‘automatic thoughts.’ However, our automatic thoughts may be hurting us and telling us false stories. For trauma survivors, it can involve challenging binary thinking patterns that may have developed initially to protect us. For instance, seeing the world through a black-and-white lens could have helped to create a sense of safety and “expectation management.” Simply put, all-or-nothing thinking may have developed as a way for us to organize our worlds, particularly when our worlds have felt chaotic.

The use of this defense mechanism in seeing people as “all good” or “all bad” in the circumstance of early childhood or attachment trauma, also known as ‘splitting”, could have helped you to manage emotions more easily at the time. Think about it- it would be quite a difficult task for a child to develop a nuanced understanding of their parents psychological limitations impacting their ability to love them, for example. In fact, it’s often (understandably) hard for adults to comprehend too.

There’s no specific one root cause for this cognitive distortion but there can be several overlapping ways it impacts us. For instance, this faulty thinking can translate to negative views of the self and others while leaving little room for nuance or ambiguity to exist in situations. When what started as a protective mechanism inevitably carries into adulthood, it becomes an inflexible view of seeing the world for what it actually is: messy, ambiguous and grey.

All-or-nothing thinking disallows us to find these shades of grey and thus, limits our relationship to others and ourselves in the process. That’s where the power of and comes in. The power of practicing the use of “and” gives permission to multiple and conflicting phenomena to exist at once. Also, language can be powerful as it gets reinforced (hence, negative self-talk becoming automatic thoughts).

In addition to any deeper work that may benefit you regarding this topic, consider some of these benefits of incorporating “and” more often into your vocabulary:

  1. Relationships. Inflexible thinking may lead to narrow snap- judgements of others that don’t do their situation justice. Using ‘and statements’ leaves space for your story, and their story to coexist.
  2. Self-compassion. All-or-nothing thinking may be reinforcing negative (and false) narratives about yourself that were introduced to you in childhood. These stories have more to do with the limitations of those around you than they do with yourself. Using ‘and’ can help with self-compassion (I made a mistake, and I am still great at what I do).
  3. Flexible thinking. Using “and” reminds us there is always more to the story than what we may immediately see. It can allow us to not feel so trapped in one idea and to think more deeply about complex issues, allowing nuance to exist where it does.

See some common ‘and’ statements below that often emerge in my work with others.

I can be imperfect, and still be a good person. 

I can love this person, and it can still not be enough to meet my needs in this relationship. 

There are parts of myself I may not like, but I am still worthy and valuable as a person.

I’ve gone through many hardships to create the life I have, and it is true I have privilege.