Once I had a client who was working himself into the ground and failing miserably. In our first session, before I had said much, he warned, “Don’t tell me I have to quit my job.” I realized his fearful linear mind was categorizing work and life into extremes of black and white, blinding him to the shades of gray where the truth usually lies. A few sessions later when I suggested he start slow with an exercise regimen, he told me, “If I can’t jog at least a mile, it’s not worth putting on my running shoes.”
Your linear mind views life in very simple, elementary ways. Things are either easy or hard, long or short, safe or threatening and so on. I’ve had clients say they can either spend time with their families or work to support them, but not both. Black-and-white thinking can make it seem that something’s wrong with you if you can’t give 100% to every area of your life, reinforced by such cultural maxims as, “I must be all things to all people or I’m a failure,” or “If you cannot do a job right, don’t do it at all,” or “If I can’t do it all, I might as well do none of it.”
I caught myself in this mind trap 45 minutes into an aerobics class. Sweating profusely, breathing hard and feeling tired after a long day’s work, I wanted to go home and rest. But my linear mind told me unless I finished the full hour, I was a total failure, that I was a loser and wouldn’t get any benefit from the class. I almost took the bait, but lucky for me my graydar detector switch online to meet the all-or-nothing thought. Once I recognized the hard-driving voice was holding me hostage, it became clear that 45 minutes was plenty of cardiac exercise. I took the balanced advice to self-care and left the class early.
When you get stuck in black-and-white thinking, consider donning your graydar detector and look for the gray areas—that dot somewhere in-between the extremes known as the middle way—to give you a more balanced perspective. Next time your mind traps you in extremes, keep your graydar’s antenna up to avoid getting snared in extreme thought with this exercise: draw a horizontal line across a piece of paper. Write down the two extreme thoughts on each end of the scale. Then focus on the middle of the scale and brainstorm other possibilities nested in the shades of gray. “I must do my job perfectly or I won’t do it at all” becomes “I don’t have to be perfect in everything. I can take risks and learn from my mistakes.”
Wear your graydar detector as often as possible to see the blind spots your linear mind creates so you have 20/20 vision and become mindful of how often it overestimates threatening situations and underestimates your ability to handle them. After dedicated practice, you start to notice the middle way with more clarity and more compassion towards yourself, bringing your personal life into healthy balance.
Your graydar detector keeps you from blowing situations out of proportion or letting one negative experience rule your whole career outlook. “I didn’t get the promotion; now I’ll never reach my career goals” becomes “I didn’t get the promotion, but there are many other steps I can take to reach my career goals.” Through your new lens, nothing is permanent, and every situation can be changed for the better. Outfoxing your linear bias becomes an automatic practice, and you’re able to find the opportunity in a difficulty, gains in your losses and beginnings in endings. “I had to pay more taxes this year than ever” becomes “I made more money this year than I’ve ever made.” Instead of letting career opportunities slip by, you’re able to see more possibilities, think outside the box and bring creative ideas to your team.
In the same vein, you’re able to savor upbeat news wrapped around downbeat news. “A tornado destroyed my neighbor’s house” becomes “The house was destroyed, but everyone survived and nobody was injured.” Your graydar detector allows you to discover gifts in adversity and how a seismic event can change your life for the better. You can re-frame gloomy prospects in a positive way. Few situations are 100% good or bad. If the weather forecast is 50% chance of rain, you quickly remind yourself there’s a 50% chance it won’t rain. With the middle way, you radically refuse to allow your linear mind to hijack your perspective—regardless of how dire the circumstances. And this more balanced, positive outlook will navigate you to career success.