When depression upturned my world like a tornado, I retreated into a world of black and white thinking. It was a familiar, “safe” place where I could feel some control over my chaotic world. It was my comfort zone.
I liked the certainty of categorizing certain things as “good” and “bad,” particularly myself and my behavior. I liked the comfort of categorizing myself as either “in a depressive episode” or “free from depression” at any given time. I was most “comfortable” when I was either pushing myself as hard as possible or collapsing and letting myself give up completely.
I felt secure when I only threw myself into situations and relationships where I knew I could succeed or quit at the first sign of failure.
I felt safe in my comfort zone, and yet I found myself alive, but not really living.
I was secure, but not joyful. I was safe, but not at peace. When I finally gathered the courage to share the truth of my emptiness with my therapist, she looked at me thoughtfully and said, “You need to start living in the grey.”
She went on to explain if I wanted to live a truly fulfilling and rich life, I had to step out of my comfort zone. I had to start accepting the grey areas that were not safe, but that were the source of beauty, diversity, and vitality in life.
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While few areas of my life were untouched by my black and white thinking, I was most in need of a little “grey” in my views of myself, success, and relationships. As a writer and journaler, my therapist and I found the best way for me to begin to open the door to the unsafe world of grey was to write down the black and white ways I was currently looking at these areas of my life, and then spend some time meditating on what the “grey” might look like for each of my thoughts.
As I journaled, I started to see my view of myself as either “good” or “bad,” “depressed” or “recovered” was destroying my self-esteem and my recovery efforts.
When I didn’t allow room for grey, I didn’t allow room for improvement. While it was uncomfortable at first to have to discover who I truly was without cut-and-dry measures of my “value,” beginning to view myself as a person on a continual journey allowed me to develop peace with myself. It opened the doors for me to see the complexity of who I am as a person, and allowed me to continually seek and see progress in my mental health regardless of how I was feeling.
I also had to let go of the way I viewed success. Caught in the “safety” of my comfort zone, I avoided embracing things that would stretch me, fulfill me, and make me into the woman I was meant to be because I was so afraid of failure. But as I began to explore what it would look like to live in the grey in this area of my life, I began to see “success” is not so much a destination as a journey.
It was hard to let go of rigid, straightforward measures of success and failure, but the fulfillment and freedom of knowing every experience is a part of shaping me into who I’m meant to be is a priceless gift.
Letting go of black and white thinking in relationships was perhaps the hardest step I had to take.
After being deeply hurt in both a friendship and a romantic relationship, I struggled to trust people and found comfort in avoiding all relationships that were not guaranteed to be faithful and completely trustworthy. I didn’t let most people get close to me, and if I let people in, I devoted myself entirely to the relationship. I avoided the excruciating pain of heartbreak, but I found in my strict categorization of people as trustworthy or not a far more painful feeling of excruciating loneliness took its place.
Over time, I had to learn the art of seeing the grey areas in relationships. I started to see it is okay to allow people into my life because I can use my own wisdom to determine how deep I let the relationship go. No longer stuck in the view I must shut people out completely or invest everything in them, I was able to start letting people in to different depths of my heart. I began to find some relief from loneliness, and I was able to meet amazing new people who I never would have grown to love in my old mindset.
It is not easy to let go of the sense of “control” of an uncontrollable world that comes from viewing everything through a black and white perspective.
But in the end, we need to “start living in the grey” so we can embrace all life is really meant to be.
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