Living in the Gray


A market research company recently inquired what I teach my clients during sessions. This company was interested in my dietetic work, even though I am also a mental health counselor. They asked me if I talk to clients about specific foods that they should or should not eat. If you read this post then you will already know my opinion on specific foods being labeled as "good" or "bad."  I explained why I do not recommend certain foods over others and why I do not call foods "good" or "bad." I tried to explain that I tailor recommendations to what the client is already eating, their food likes and dislikes, and their goals for their health and nutrition. The market research team did not like this answer; it seemed like they wanted me to say, 'I tell people don't eat____, and do eat______'.

I frequently talk to my mom about nutrition and health related topics. I call my mom "the original health nut," as she was the first influence on me, particularly in all things nutrition. Yet, she disagrees with my view that no foods are bad. She avoids gluten, sugar, and foods that are processed or packaged. My mom thinks that these are "bad" foods that nobody should consume. She is appalled that I would say that a Twinkie is okay to eat now and then. After talking to my mom, I began to understand why some people want lists of foods that they "should" or "shouldn't" eat.

My style of nutrition counseling often has a huge backlash with many people, and I did not understand the reason behind it until now. At this moment, it is so clear to me why people want lists of foods they "should" or "shouldn't" eat, "bad" or "good" foods, and a set meal plan that tells people exactly what they will eat at every meal and snack for the day.

The more I work with people, the more I realize that the desire to have YES’s and NO's about certain foods is part of a bigger issue. And this issue comes up nearly every day with my clients. I personally used to struggle with this issue. The issue I am talking about is black and white thinking.

People love to put things into categories. It helps us have a clear vision in our minds. When issues are in gray areas, many people feel anxiety and uneasiness. Living in the gray can mean releasing the feeling that you absolutely have to know the right answer.  This is difficult for those who are raised to believe that as long as we know the answer, what to say, or what to do, things will be fine. Everything will then be under control, and most importantly, under your control.

Pema Chodron talks about how we create ideas with our minds and about how these ideas become fixed. She says that we think that an issue, “has to be like this," or "it must be like this.” When you think this way, you develop a polarization in your mind or a non-flexible way of thinking. What happens if it doesn't turn out like "this" or "that"? Or if "this" and "that" are in opposition of each other? Then what? What if you don't want "this" or "that"? Can you open your mind to allow for something in the middle?

Philosopher Alan Watts said about the dualistic mind: "Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations."

Black and white thinking robs us from fully experiencing relationships. No person is perfect all of the time, nor are people bad all of the time. We lose when we expect people to always be a certain way and then they don't live up to our expectations. People are gray. Every person is unique and brings many different qualities to our lives.

We are never going to be perfect. If we expect to be a ten, and we end up being an eight, we might equate it to being a zero. We are never going to be a ten because we are human. And that is okay!  We are unfinished, always growing, always learning. If we were a ten right now, what would be the point of continuing to learn and grow?

Black and white thinking robs us from having balance in our lives. One of the biggest complaints I hear from clients is that they cannot find balance in their lives because they are so busy. This kind of thinking can stem from wanting do things perfectly, or not at all. For example, if you wish you had 2 hours exercise but you only have ten minutes, isn't ten minutes better than nothing? Many people would say no, and would therefore do no exercise. But if you think in the gray and use the ten minutes you have to go on a walk, that might be enough activity to clear your head and de-stress from your day.

 If you have used polarizing thinking your entire life, it can seem overwhelming to change. You can begin by noticing your polarizing thoughts. At first, you might notice your judgmental thinking. What is the chatter in the background of your mind? When one thing goes wrong, do you tell yourself that this day is terrible and everything is wrong? This is black and white thinking, and it can be very detrimental on your well-being, increasing anxiety and depression.

 These are words and phrases that are commonly used in black and white thinking:

Always     Perfect        Terrible     Impossible Never      Failure         Awful         Can't handle this

We all make statements about ourselves, but we don’t have to listen to them. Is it possible that you can make a mistake at work, and not be entirely stupid? Is there a possibility that you can get into a fight with your spouse, yet still love him or her and know that you are loved? Can you love your children; yet still get angry with them at times? If you are saying "yes" to yourself, then you have begun to see the gray in your life.

When you notice yourself thinking in black and white, gently acknowledge to yourself that you are doing this, and ask yourself how you can be friendlier to yourself. Creating alternative evidence to polarizing statements is helpful for finding the gray in life.

Try to find the gray in one situation today. People can be friendly one day and mean the next; you can be talented in one area of your life and average in others; and people can be self confident in one situation and insecure in another. Life is not all bad or all good.