These were the roots of the black-and-white mindset that I thought was critical to my success, but in reality, it limited my life and undermined my health. I pushed myself too hard and too fast because in my mind, anything less was a path to failure.
After years of hyper-regimented living, a debilitating injury kick-started my pursuit of a fuller, more flexible life. Here’s how I learned to live “in the gray.”
All or Nothing—There Is No In-Between
Black and white thinking allows for two possibilities in every situation: a pitch-perfect outcome or a total disaster. There is no middle ground, no silver medal, no learning from mistakes. Success and failure are the two options.
Black and white thinking allows for two possibilities in every situation: a pitch-perfect outcome or a total disaster.
Fearing failure, for me, meant that I only did the things I was good at. Team sports were immediately out. I had no interest in building skills and camaraderie on a team when all I could think about was how bad I was, relative to everyone else. Cooking? Also out. I didn’t have a knack for blending spices and discerning flavors, rendering me “useless” in the kitchen.
A core component of my black-and-white mindset, especially as I got older and progressed through high school and college, was the belief that even just one imperfection—at work, at school, at home, anywhere—was unacceptable. Something as small as a spelling error in an email rendered my words idiotic and unreadable; water spots on my freshly washed car undid all of my Saturday afternoon scrubbing; an edit note on a story I was writing for an internship meant I would be fired by the end of the week.
The lack of middle ground inherent in black-and-white thinking means there is no room for risk. When my options were to either succeed or fail miserably, I didn’t want to play the odds. Instead I lived as tightly and rigidly as possible. From the cleanliness of my apartment to my weekly schedule, every aspect of my life was planned, purposeful, and painstakingly regimented.
My Black-and-White Life
What did this look like, day to day? Within four weeks of a college semester, I had read all the books in the syllabus and at least started the final paper. If I told myself I’d finish something by Thursday, I finished it Monday, no matter what. If I had an “off day,” where I felt sick or tired or just bored with my routine, I was convinced I was becoming a lazy slob. If someone walked in to my apartment with shoes on, I’d burst out crying and commit to washing the entire apartment on my hands and knees once they left. If I didn’t save more than half my income, I was sure I’d be broke in a matter of months, despite having no debt and living a thrifty lifestyle.
Many of these behaviors were validated and reinforced by my peers and the broader American culture. In college, many of my classmates wished they could work like I did. The few people who were allowed to enter my apartment (no more than two people over the course of several years) praised my “pristine dollhouse.” People told me—a 20-something— to “spend a little more, live a little!”
Society unquestioningly values cleanliness, productivity, and frugality. I was all of those things, but I was also running myself into the ground.
Trying to Manage
As a high schooler, I started to notice that many people, who were at least as busy as I was, didn’t seem to think life was such a challenge. It occurred to me that perhaps I was making life harder than necessary. With this in mind, I made a conscious effort to reframe my thinking. While still in high school, I stopped looking at my grades. I told myself I didn’t need the validation; I was working as hard as I could, and that was what mattered.
I started making to-do lists and checking items off throughout the day, repeating: “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be done.” In college, I would Venn diagram my black-and-white thoughts, with the “gray” option in the middle.
The trouble was, I only did this work at the end of a long day—a day spent obsessing over minor details, avoiding risks, and living within the rigid box I’d created for myself. I knew I had an issue that was worth confronting, but I wasn’t ready to change my daily habits. Unsurprisingly my black-and-white thinking didn’t go away.
The Breaking Point
Flash to February 2013. I was trying to do it all, while also refusing to let myself catch a break. I had to be up very early for work and often stayed up late working too, but I didn’t take naps on principle. (In black-and-white world, relaxing midday is akin to being lazy.) I never missed a workout, never cancelled an appointment or meeting, never went more than a week without doing laundry, never had a fridge that wasn’t filled with heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables. I thought I was doing all the right things.
I never missed a workout, never cancelled an appointment or meeting, never went more than a week without doing laundry, never had a fridge that wasn’t filled with heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables.
One particular Friday, I went to the gym despite thinking to myself that I would rather relax at home with my new Real Simple. But that would be lazy and unproductive, I thought, and to the gym I went. I walked to the weight room to grab a Bosu ball. I reached for it at a weird angle, and… riiiip. I heard the tear and felt it deep in my upper back. I couldn’t move my arms or neck without crippling pain. I walked outside, tears welling in my eyes, and texted my boyfriend that I wouldn’t be able to go out that night. I had no idea what I was in for.
The pain only got worse, and my mobility shrank by the hour. By the time my boyfriend came over to check on me that evening, I couldn’t move my arms at all. I feared I would be forever immobilized—that’s when panic set in. The following Monday I went to the doctor, who thought I had a stress tear and sent me home with narcotics, saying it could be weeks or months until I felt better.
Over the course of a month, I was completely dependent on someone else. I couldn’t shower or put on pants. I couldn’t run errands, clean, or even sit at a table. A five-minute walk felt like a marathon that left me out of breath and shaky. My boyfriend laid me in bed every night—I couldn’t lean back on my own—and built chairs out of pillows so I could sit at his makeshift coffee-turned-dinner table. He drove me to and from the physical therapy that would eventually help me gain back the mobility and strength I’d lost. And he assured me that I was not a burden, or a failure, pointing out that sometimes “people need people.”
Clarity and Change
I considered my injury to be my body’s cry for help. I was running it ragged, disregarding its needs for relaxation, rest, and spontaneous fun. During and after physical therapy, I told myself that I would do anything to avoid that pain and immobility in the future. If I had to Dyson my floors less and sleep more, then okay. If I had to take regular stretch breaks at work and combat my fears of wasting time or falling behind, so be it.
What initially began as an attempt to avoid injury eventually became a minute-to-minute effort to work against black-and-white thinking. I started to see the link between burnout and my dedication to productivity above all else. Living in the gray—or even, as a first step, just seeing the gray—became a goal I wanted to work toward, even at the expense of promptly sent thank-you notes and dusted baseboards.
A Continual Process
Six months after my back injury, my boyfriend moved in—and I experienced my first relapse into black-and-white thinking. I hadn’t lived with someone for five years, for the precise reason that you can’t call all the shots unless you live alone. I had worked to challenge my rigidity around scheduling, cleaning, and productivity, but up until we started living together, I’d only had to loosen up when I felt ready and able.
The first few weeks of cohabiting were tough, likely equally so for him, as I scurried around trying to get us settled in as quickly as possible. I was a pile of stress again, reverting to old ways. After a few months, my boyfriend confronted me about the fact that this kind of lifestyle was not sustainable.
I protested at first—but eventually acknowledged his point. Our life together was pretty simple: We were childless, with good jobs, living in a nice neighborhood close to our families. How was I going to manage changes in the future if I made every step of the way so unnecessarily hard even now?
And so I developed another mantra: “Is this sustainable?”
I would—and still do—ask myself whether my thought patterns, behaviors, and choices can be sustained over time, or how they can adjust when things get busy. For instance, is it sustainable to tell myself I will always clean the kitchen on Wednesday, grocery shop for the week on Sunday morning, or weight train three times a week, no matter what? No. Life happens. Things are adjustable, and my body and brain need me to accept a middle ground that black-and-white thinking does not allow.
There are still days when living “in the gray” is the last thing I want to do. Sometimes I forget about my back injury and what can happen without adequate self-care. Sometimes I still crave that instant rush of adrenaline from knocking out tasks and forcing myself into a robotic rhythm, fueled by rules and the cultural cred that comes with massive accomplishment. Some days the lure of black and white feels too great to resist.
Those days, I know now, come during the weeks when I’ve slept too little, stressed too much, and eaten too many working lunches while poring over my laptop. Black-and-white thinking swoops down on a tired, overworked Clare, promising to provide comforts if only I push a little harder or clean a few more bathrooms.
It would be reverting to old habits to think I could live only in the gray from here on out. That would be so “black and white” of me, not to mention unrealistic. But by living much of life in the gray and knowing when and why I’m thinking more rigidly, I’ve learned to trust myself.
I know what I do well and what I could do better, but I don’t avoid activities just because I won’t be the best. I know there are times when I have to work fast and other times when flooring it isn’t the best idea. I can be clean, productive, efficient, and financially savvy without punishing myself. I can live in the gray and confront my fear of failure and aversion to risk in real time, as the thoughts come, rather than obsessing and overworking as a means of coping and avoiding.
The best thing I’ve learned? Life is so much better outside the box of black and white.