The middle ground can be hard to find. Not only in our politics and communities. But in ourselves, our emotions, even our language.
After all, hyperbole and polarizing words aren’t just in our news feeds or on social media, they’re in our daily conversations and thoughts. We’re not tired, we’re exhausted. We’re not hungry, we’re starving. And the year 2020 isn’t full of heartbreak, tragedy, and some sparks of beauty and goodness, it’s the worst year ever.
That last statement has been showing up a lot these past few months in social media posts, headlines, and texts from friends. I understand. My heart aches when I think of all this year’s upheaval and pain. 2020 has been an especially difficult year. But the curious thing I’ve realized, however, is that I’ve heard this statement before. In fact, for at least as long as I’ve been on social media, I’ve heard it every year.
I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed this. Last month, National Geographic published an intriguing article called “Why every year—but especially 2020—feels like the worst ever.” The article points to the usual suspects like social media and the 24-hour news cycle. (Which influence our perspective way more than we realize.) And it delves into the human tendency to view the past through rose-colored glasses and the present through a microscope. But the article also points to a culprit I’m especially interested in: all-or-nothing thinking.
All-or-nothing thinking (also called dichotomous thinking or black-and-white thinking) is what is known in psychology as a cognitive distortion, an irrational thought pattern. In all-or-nothing thinking, there’s no middle ground, only polar opposites. Life is viewed in extremes. Things are terrible or wonderful. People are heroes or villains. You’re a winner or a loser. When a person gets stuck in all-or-nothing thinking, they tend to use words like always, never, ruined, worst, best. They frequently use hyperbole. (This video from Therapy in a Nutshell offers a great explanation of this type of thinking.)
I have a personal interest in all-or-nothing thinking because it’s a habit I’ve had to painstakingly unlearn. As I’ve written previously, I lived for years with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder (technically, a mix of panic disorder and OCD). People with anxiety or depression are more likely to get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking. And unfortunately, this type of thinking can lead to more anxiety and depression.
It’s a cycle I’ve learned to break by changing the way I think. It’s a process, to be sure, and I still fall into it from time to time. But it’s certainly possible to change. Here are some things that help me avoid the trap of all-or-nothing thinking and find my way towards middle ground in my emotions and perspective:
Expanding my vocabulary
When it comes to describing the space between extremes, the English language often falls short. I never realized this until I read a blog post on PsychCentral that described this problem. The post’s author, Summer Beretsky Bukeavich, leads the reader through an interesting exercise that demonstrates why we often struggle to describe the “in-between.”
Bukeavich makes the point that part of the reason it’s hard to avoid polarizing terms or hyperbole is that our language (if you’re an English speaker) lacks the necessary adjectives. And when adjectives do exist, they’re often bland and unappealing. They lack the “verbal punch” of their extreme counterparts. It takes time (and extra creativity) to find words that are more accurate descriptors of our experiences.
Using numbers instead of words
One way to get around our dearth of adjectives is to use numbers instead. What’s a word for an emotion that lies somewhere between “anxious” and “calm”? It’s not easy to think of one. That’s why when it comes to things like anxiety, therapists ask people to describe it using a numerical scale. (Another example of this is the pain scale that doctors use.) Rating my emotions on a numerical scale helps me to better understand and express them, especially difficult emotions like anxiety and anger.
I wish we’d describe more things using a numerical scale or spectrum when words fall short. Imagine how different our political conversations might be if instead of being stuck with labels like “Democratic” or “Republican,” we regularly placed our political opinions along a spectrum?
Trying the phrase: “That’s one way of looking at it.”
Like so many of us, my emotions have been all over the place this year, and I’ve often found myself caught up in “doomscrolling.” (As Wired defines it: “an endless scroll through social media in a desperate search for clarity.”) Now when I read headlines or posts, I try to pause and think: “That’s one way of looking at it.”
With this simple phrase, I validate the other perspective yet remind myself that what I’m reading or seeing is one perspective and there are likely other perspectives and interpretations worth considering. I see this phrase as a reminder to look up and step away from the microscope.
Naming the good
We naturally spot the challenges and threats in life. And in a year like 2020, they’re so easy to see. But in my experience, even the most painful seasons of life have their moments of meaning or joy, however small: the years that I’ve lost people I loved or had a troubling medical diagnosis or was unemployed. When I look back, I realize that there were still moments of goodness in the midst of those difficult times.
Noticing the good, meaningful, and beautiful things in life is important. But I also think there’s power in writing them down. A few mornings a week, I’ll write a prayer of gratitude, thanking God for five things from the previous day. It’s not poetry, it’s a few scribbled sentences followed by a bulleted list. Every time I do it, I feel a bit better and more hopeful afterward. It’s my way of saying: “Life is hard right now and the world’s problems feel overwhelming, but this good thing is also real and true. Thank you.”
I don’t know how to find middle ground in our political discussions or our communities. But I do know how to change the polarizing words I use that in turn, shape my thought patterns and actions. And even though my words and actions are small in the grand scheme of things, they’re like stones I throw in the water, rippling out to the wider world.