“Just Stop It!”

So said a young woman I see, to her obsessive-compulsive boyfriend, whose prolonged, ritual flicking on & off of a light switch was making them Late for a Thing they had planned to do. To her amazement & delight, he did stop it, at least long enough for them to get on with the day’s agenda. Who knew? 40 years of trying to effect changes of behavior through Socratic reasoning and other insight-oriented methods, and all along I could have done what your Dad [or at least mine] did: sonorously intone the command, “Knock it off!”

Trouble is, as parents & dog owners know, once the Commander has left premises, the proscribed behavior usually resumes.

The hard-to-extinguish behavior that I wish I could peremptorily curb [in myself & those intrusted to my care] is Black & White Thinking: the so-called Cognitive Error of perceiving everything in life as either All Good or All Bad.

Big fans of Stanford biologist Robert M. Sapolsky’s 1994 PopPsych bestseller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, may quibble with my choice of animal metaphor, since his point is that wild beasts don’t overthink life’s adversities, therefore they produce fewer glucocorticoids, and suffer fewer stress-related illnesses. My rebuttal would be that this particular zebra is a captive of the Los Angeles Zoo [where we took his/her picture]; and if zebra-ear semiotics are anything like horses’, this one was signalling a situationally appropriate lack of joie de vivre.  “Okay, so I may be safe from drought, poachers, and my traditional predators; but, Poseidon! Is this enclosure ever bo-ring! Bring on the lions, already.”

Also, come on, how black & white can you get?

Remember the teenagers’ mantra of the 90s, “…but it’s all good”?  Usually uttered right after their disclosure of a Fairly Bad event or situation? How tempting it was to remark, “Surely, it’s not all good? Not 100% good?” Then, as now, there were also the drama queens, who at the first sign of adversity declared that a situation was “the worst!” Really? You can’t imagine an even more grim scenario? This one takes the cake?

One year when my girls were fairly young I gave up saying “Never” and “Always” for Lent: “You never clean your room!” became, “A lot of times, you don’t clean  your room.” [Far more accurate, and less humiliating for all concerned.] As gratifying as the ensuing Peace & Harmony was, it was difficult to sustain. We humans are wired to dichotomize: friend or foe? Am I the fairest of them all, or the ugliest? Do I feel “On top of the world,” or “like Hell”?

May I suggest 2 antidotes to Black & White Thinking? One, print & post this visual mnemonic of my LA zebra. Two, in response to adverse situations, try to Find the Beauty Part: the small, positive aspect that makes it “So it shouldn’t be a total loss.” This basic premise of Stoic philosophy helps counteract the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” [which want to get up our nose and produce rage & glucocorticoids].

At least in your head, you could try to replace the [usually inaccurate] absolutes of “This is the best” or “This is the worst,” with the words of that modern-day Stoic philosopher, Larry David, “This is pretty, pretty, pretty good.”

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Filed under black and white thinking, Epictetus said..., semiotics

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