Catastrophizing and Other Black & White Thinking


The mind loves to go to extremes. Catastrophizing or self-delusional positive thinking are two powerful manifestations of black and white thinking - another of the mind habits you may do very well to master. If you want to align with reality this is one habit of the mind you want to work on leaving behind.

Black and White Thinking

While life comes in all shades of grey, thinking often comes in black and white. This discrepancy creates trouble for us in more ways than one ...

We either want to have it all or nothing at all. We want light without darkness. We want to win without having to lose. Thinking in black and white terms is one of those mind habits that we spend most of our lives trying to manage and bring into balance.

There are two particular manifestations of black and white thinking (also known as all-or-nothing thinking) that can be especially damaging when indulged in:

1) Catastrophizing (sometimes misspelled as catastrophising).

2) Self-delusional positive thinking.

These are opposite poles of the same spectrum of black and white thinking. Let's examine each in turn...

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To catastrophize is to be caught in the negative pole of all-or-nothing ... black or white ... thinking.

To catastrophize is to see only the worst case scenarios. "I can't handle this", "It will be too much", "This is the end", "It's all downhill from here", "There is no way out", etc. These are all ways of seeing only catastrophe.

When you're catastrophizing - positives are neither considered nor seen. Positives may be intellectually entertained but just for the purpose of throwing them overboard. Your emotions remain firmly anchored on the negative pole.

Catastrophizing is unchecked imagination. It's being stuck on the negative pole, forgetting how things could actually be different. When using your imagination in this way it's easy to lose faith in yourself. You lose faith and confidence in the powers of your subconscious mind - now working against you.

To recover lost confidence, you'd need to start using your creative inner powers constructively. You can recover your faith and equilibrium by skillfully addressing your subconscious powers and fears. You need not resort to swinging to the other extreme of delusional positive thinking, although without knowing any better you may very well try...

Self-Delusional Positive Thinking

At the other extreme on the spectrum of black and white thinking is self-delusional positive thinking. While catastrophizing, you're stuck on the negative pole. Insisting on self-delusional positive thinking puts you squarely at the opposite extreme thinking, 'how do you motivate yourself with positive self-talk?'

Both extremes are sorely out of touch with the mid-stream of life - where reality likes to reside.

In self-delusional positive thinking you're just as careless as you were when catastrophizing. You aren't looking for reality, but have found an alternative to it instead. This is a precarious position to be in ...

  • Your world may be collapsing around you, but you tell yourself things are just fine. After all, there's so much to be grateful for.

  • You may feel terrible and don't really see a way out, but you know how important it is to be positive. So you bring in the positive self talk - 'effectively' masking the subconscious current of negativity still flowing unhindered beneath the surface.

  • Positive thinking makes you feel like you're doing something. You may not be doing anything to address the real issues, but at least you're working on yourself!

We fool ourselves by thinking this is how to be more positive.

On the surface the positive pole seems like a better place to be. After all, how can positivity be a negative thing right? Yet, both extremes - self-delusional positive thinking and catastrophizing - are delusional. The truly positive is extracted from what's actually going on.

A Vicious Cycle - When Extremes Turn Into Each Other

Travelling down the extremes of catastrophizing or self-delusional positive thinking may appear to take you in completely opposite directions. Travel towards one, and you'll likely never see the other ever again or so the thinking may go.

However, actually travelling down one of these roads - a peculiar thing happens. It leads you right into the arms of the opposite extreme. Turns out these poles are sitting on a circle rather than on a straight line. Not unlike the curvature of the earth, you may not see the circle due to its size. But the circle is there nonetheless.

Catastrophize long enough and self-delusional positive thinking will come to your 'rescue'. Engage in self-delusional positive thinking long enough, postponing the action steps needed to actually make your life better, and your bright future recedes - inviting catastrophic thinking right back into the picture.

Catastrophizing and self-delusional positive thinking invite and turn into one another.

Turning Back to the Middle Way

Ultimately, the problem with black and white thinking (or any of the other mind habits for that matter) is that it whisks you away into a mental world that just doesn't concretely exist. When the mind insists on its own version of 'reality', you end up developing an increasingly antagonistic relationship with life.

Instead of flowing with the power of life, you find yourself swimming against its current - all the while wondering why life needs to be such a struggle! Tired and exhausted, you give up and the current of life sweeps you down stream. Until you gather the strength to try again.

There must be a better way.

Becoming aware of the this black and white dynamic operating inside, you can take proactive measures to curb it. You can proactively step out of the mind - giving yourself perspective and the ability to view your situation more objectively. A sober assessment of what you're up against puts you in the best possible position to determine your next steps - and to take them. 

Finally, you have real cause for optimism. You're immediately uplifted, buoyed by your new found alignment with life - both within and without. You feel strength and positivity come rushing back into your life.

You've stepped back into the mid stream of life - the middle way.

The more you remind yourself that life is the full spectrum of colors - not just the brightest or faintest hues - the more resourceful you'll be with inspired life changes as you make your way.

Other Mind Habits You May Do Very Well to Master...

Clinging to your comfort zone 

The fear of fear 

Comparing yourself to others 

Perfectionism and Procrastination 

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