There was drama at our house last night. Short story is that my brother dropped by unannounced over heartbreak because some girl dumped him and mom and dad were there for him. I didn’t find that cool at all, because it was my evening, too, and that’s not how my evening was supposed to go. The world became the blackest place and my family the worst family ever, I was sure that they loved only him and not me, and within half a breath my brother’s heartbreak was a breeze compared to mine.
It was probably a textbook example of black-and-white thinking and splitting. Things are either all or nothing. The one OR the other. Either my parents love my brother, or they love me. Either my evening is nice, but if something doesn’t go exactly as I planned or expected it, it’s a catastrophe. Either I love my family or I hate them, because either they are my perfect family or detestable monsters I’m not even related to. Plus: I must be horrible and unlovable for them to treat me so.
This is a Borderline symptom. Through black-and-white thinking, I split everything – other people, myself, situations, circumstances – into being either all-good or all-bad. And while I am feeling a certain way about it, it feels like the eternal, inalterable truth. Until some small thing changes it and the opposite feels like the eternal, inalterable truth. Needless to say that is not a good basis for relationships. It creates great amounts of drama. It sure made a mess of last night.
The result was that dad took care of my brother’s heartbreak and mom of mine. (Splitting turns around: Oh no, I was so wrong, she loves me, she’s there for me, she’s the most perfect mother ever!) And after I had calmed down and felt safe again we had a long talk about black-and-white thinking and splitting and all that.
We compared it to operating a 1000 watt light bulb. What I have is a switch that I flick either on or off. It’s either completely dark or I have to deal with a glaring floodlight. What I need is a dimmer.
Now the not-so-healthy part of me wants to argue: “What the heck do I need a fucking dimmer for?! A dimmer is bullshit!! How am I ever supposed to know anything for sure if I constantly have to adjust my dimmer to get the right setting?? I will forever be getting it wrong because how would I know when I have found the right setting?!! It’s a shit idea! I don’t want to dim the light and risk seeing too little. Or too much. I want to keep my switch! On, off! Safe!! Go to hell with fucking dimmers!”
Well, I suppose at least I’m in good company! Mom reassured me that everyone prefers switches over dimmers a lot of the time. She said it’s human nature to want to put things into categories and make generalized judgments. I guess that’s how I ended up with the so-called “sane” people putting so many labels on me in the first place! And I guess that’s how even on a really grand scale, the black-and-white thinking is popular. Think of “rogue countries”, for example. Hey, even I can discern that it’s hardly the entire country that is ALL rogue! I bet many good people live in and are a part of so-called rogue countries. Maybe they care for their own people! Maybe they even have good intentions carried out all wrong! I don’t know! So labeling the entire country “rogue” sounds like a judgment I might make when I’m rubbed the wrong way. Light switch off. Easy. Clean. Safe. So I guess I at least have plenty of company in my black-and-white thinking.
Not that that makes it any more healthy. Or helpful, for that matter.
Mom pointed out to me (like, only for the 1000th time) that black-and-white thinking makes me end up with serious misconceptions about the world. That people, situations and circumstances are too complex and multi-layered to do them justice with the on-off switch. That most things happen in between the extremes. That things can change or appear different to what they are. That sometimes the opposites can both be true at the same time without excluding one another. That the more skilled I get at operating a dimmer, the more true to reality my perception will become.
See, the splitting up things into one extreme or the other is a matter of safety. I grew up in a very unsafe environment alongside very unsafe people. For example my birth mother, if she was in a bad mood, she was in a really bad mood. It was a matter of survival to read the signs and act accordingly and immediately. Like, shit, she clanged down the pot lid hard – she’s pissed, she hates me, she’s a dangerous person to be around. Because she WAS a dangerous person to be around. For real. On the other hand I could not afford to hold on to my hate of her, of my considering her dangerous, because at the same time she was my mother and I depended on her. If she had a nice moment, I needed to react to that, needed to be able to appreciate and love her. All good. Those very real extremes CAN not exist at the same time within a child who is still learning to make sense of the world. So it was safer to only have one OR the other. Safer for my feelings, but safer in the sense of physical safety, too. I needed to either get myself out of harm’s way, or receive openly what I was given when I was given something. Without either I would probably not have survived my childhood.
I guess the problem is that the world of my childhood itself was an extreme one, and not how normal people operate. What I grew up to think of as normal, is really not. In normal situations, with people who are not deeply disturbed themselves, people use dimmers, not switches, to assess situations.
I’m still learning to do that. I guess I do have a dimmer of sorts now, because I can at least reflect on the matter (like I am doing here) and make sense of it. When I am emotional I still rather use my switch. The only real difference is that now my mom doesn’t let me get away with it. Yesterday when I split the evil, bad, rotten parts off to see only those, she did not let that pass, but immediately followed up on it. I went from switching one way (fuck her and the family) to switching the other way (I love her so much), but neither was really good, so she helped me calm down and we talked and she helped me find a more correct assessment of the situation.
Or staying within the metaphor: she took my hand, put it on my dimmer and helped me adjust it to a setting that did the situation more justice. Like she has done so many times now. But I guess it takes many, many, many repetitions. For now I am glad I can see good settings after she pointed them out to me. For the future, I hope I will learn to resist flicking the switch more often to play with the dimmer. I am practicing.