On Acceptance of Grey

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I did not even know I was a binary thinker until I unearthed nuance. I would see people as either good or evil. People were either the best or the absolute worst. I had either bad experiences or good experiences. A person would either like me or simply hate me. Once, a friend said I would be a “woman of extremes” — at first, it sounded like a nice comment, if not even a compliment. But that’s not how it should be.

A large part of film history had two categories of awards: Best Hero and Best Villain. The fact of the matter is: everything and everyone is a shade of grey. We often watch characters in movies and aren’t entirely sure whether they are white or black; the ones who are ‘grey’ in their thinking. Grey characters are the intermediate between a villain and a hero. They are neither wholly evil nor good. Some famous grey characters are Severus Snape from the Harry Potter Series, Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, and Arthur Fleck AKA from Joker. These characters are shown flawed but are human nonetheless.

Why do we assign things as black and white?

It is very soothing for our primitive minds to tag things in black and white. This thinking is deeply rooted in being generic rather than specific. But as it turns out, life is full of shades of grey. Having said that, we can fit everything into the boxes that we have in our minds and with which we would like to deal with all the situations. However, sometimes, we find things pretty unpredictable and confusing. Sometimes the answers are not certain as “Yes”, “No” or “Maybe”. Other times, there might be different types of Yes’s and different types of No’s. But just because our society has compelled us to follow the norms that appear to be universal, we have segmented ourselves into different groups, such as good versus evil, yes versus no, and right versus wrong. But still, it is not that simple.

Paradoxically, everything is situational and filled with various nuances: many greys, many rainbows, plenty of sunshine, and occasional thunderstorms.

In fact, some experts claim that this pattern may have its origin in human survival — our fight or flight response. Even worse, our black and white thinking can be a symptom of other conditions as well, such as Narcissism (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and depression, and racism and homophobia.

The more complicated the things around us become, the more crucial it is to learn to see things as grey as well as cope with them.

A situation may be “just fine.” Your professional life may be in a period of stagnation. And the person who likes you may simply not be fully prepared yet. We need to set aside our black and white thought processes and begin to see differently in various shades of grey. Being at ease with uncertainty is an integral part of social innovation. It’s referred to it as “being in the grey.” That is, we strive to be at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty to be open to change.

Bucketing is easy but comes at great costs.

No doubt black and white thinking can be helpful for us to categorize and bucket things and people. On some level, this thinking provides us a sense of certainty — that we know “what’s what” or “who is who.” But at the same time, bucketing and categorizing right or wrong, good or evil, clever or stupid, productive or lazy, etc. is overly simplistic.

It may surprise you, but black and white thinking prevents us from seeing the world as complex, nuanced, and full of all the shades in between.

A white or black mindset prevents us from finding a happy medium. And, let’s face it, life at the extreme ends is difficult to sustain. This thinking process not only causes stress but also eliminates possibilities. Besides this, we must make sure that a full array of choices are available for us. In other words, subconscious beliefs and behaviors should not control or limit our possibilities.

This white and black thought process is undeniably a pattern that restricts possible options. Case in point, people with binary thinking are perfectionists because they know they can’t be perfect or the best –“I ‘ll never be able to run a marathon so what’s the point in exercising?” Also, positions can become more entrenched — “My boss hates me and will never be happy with anything I do.” Self-esteem is crushed — “No one will ever want to be my friend.” We struggle to find compassion — “This celebrity said something horrendous I cannot believe.” It is the tendency to think in extremes — “I am a brilliant success, or I am an utter failure, or he’s an angel or the devil incarnate.” It can keep you from learning — “I am bad at mathematics.” And it narrows down possibilities — “If I leave my job as a senior manager, I couldn’t survive.” The list goes on… and that’s what exactly Gattuso reminds us with the statement below:

“This kind of thinking can be exhausting, sending us through constant ups and downs. And on a deep level, simplifying things into easy, binary terms robs us of much of the complexity that makes life and relationships so rich.”

The world is not binary

We are prone to black and white thinking. The irregular blip is not a big deal, but it can slow people down when it becomes a daily ritual. The issue in seeing things in black and white, red and blue, or any other conflicting color scheme is just that it constrains their potential to see nuance. Seeing things in black and white limits our ability to engage in dialogue, innovate, and ultimately divides us.

The world is not binary: there are many shades of grey in our lives. We may initially find it easier to separate good from evil, right from wrong, and beautiful from ugly if we see the world in black and white rather than the complex rainbow that it is. However, this way of thinking can be emotionally draining, causing us to experience constant ups and downs. On a deeper level, simplifying things into simple, binary terms deprives us of much of the complexities that enrich life and relationships.

Acknowledgment of Grey is a mark of an evolved mind

We live in a rapidly evolving world — COVID-19 and the acceleration of technology over the past twenty years should serve as a reminder of that — so what was true, or “more true” of something yesterday might no longer be true today. What holds today? However, by being consciously open-minded in our approach to people and situations, you will get closer together. When you start having binary thoughts, consider the possibilities between the two categories. We need to understand that sometimes we do not need to filter out our thoughts. All we need to do is to acknowledge that there is maybe no absolute certainty and truth. Things are constantly changing. Alternatively, seek the assistance of a professional.

Practice reminding yourself of reality. Pay attention to what other people think about their point of view. We miss out on all the wonderful things in the middle when we think in binary terms. By recognizing grey, you open up a world of shades and options. Being in the grey is more of a mindset — a way of being and thinking — than a tool or method. It is the polar opposite of a black-and-white or straight-and-narrow frame of mind. But instead of assuming that problems are obvious and solutions are obvious, it is necessary to accept that we live in a turbulent and unpredictable world.

Concluding thoughts

Extreme thinking is characterized by black and white thinking. To live within the confines of extremism, one must see the world in black and white. This viewpoint neatly divides the world into right and wrong, good and evil, and yes and no. We will not be victims of willful ignorance in any leader/God-men/God/brand after accepting Grey, and we will also not label things as bad/evil when they fail to meet our ideal standards.

The world should not be viewed solely in black and white. Instead, we should try to see it as a spectral range, with black on one end and white on the other, with a lot of grey in the midpoint. This causes us to consider and acknowledge nuance, to operate from a place of truth-seeking rather than truth-telling, to avoid associating too closely with our ideas, to make better decisions, and to propel humanity forward.

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Sources and further reading:

Sania Nasir

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