Truth, Perfectionism, Shame and Fifty (Thousand) Shades of Grey; on the problem with binary thinking.

Pure truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts but in nuance. Was there ever such a thing as pure memory? I doubt it. Even when we convince ourselves that we are being dispassionate, sticking to the bald facts with no self serving decorations or omissions, pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap.”

John Le Carre –The Pigeon Tunnel

So I’ve been thinking about this stuff in relation to my own life for quite a while now. After 18+ months of illness and isolation, I’m slowly and tenuously refamiliarisng myself with the contours and boundaries of my life as it used to exist. Or, to put it more accurately, i’m discovering that some of these contours and boundaries have changed so dramatically in my absence, have assumed such disturbingly alien and unexpected forms, that trying to understand how and why these shifts have occurred feels both overwhelming and traumatising in equal measure.

In so far as I have got anywhere at all with this conundrum, I have come to realise the following; People, standing in different positions, with different amounts of information, different motivations, temperaments and experiences, can, given sufficient time and space, end up seeing the same picture in very different ways, in ways that appear so different in fact that it is virtually impossible  to comprehend how they could ever have been looking at the same thing at all.

Not sure what I mean? Then lucky you. But really, you know… the way in which sometimes people come up with the answer eight to what looks to you very much like the question ‘what is one plus one?’ Not only that, but they seem to be so god damned sure that the answer is eight, and determined to tell everybody else that the answer is eight too, that you start looking at the two in front of you with some concern, like it might be trying to trick you or something.

A few weekends ago I watched someone answer eight and someone answer two. Watching  from the sidelines, it probably looked a bit more like a four to me. Having found my way back to my bedroom, and whilst lying on my bed and feeling slightly the worst for wear, I was struck by the extent to which different people, who generally share pretty similar opinions and outlooks on the world, can – in this case with the help of no small quantity of alcohol – end up interpreting the same situation in such wildly different ways.

I had been painfully aware of it happening as part of recent events in my own life, and had been feeling rather sorry for myself in a ‘why me?’ sort of a way, whilst thinking it was probably an unfortunate consequence of the particular and relatively unusual circumstances surrounding my illness, but here was clear evidence of it happening to other people, right infront of my nose. Thinking about it now, this kind of thing must happen all of the time and in all sorts of situations. This puzzles me though, because basically it doesn’t seem to make any bloody sense. Or does it?

The obvious place to start exploring the way in which people can come up with opposite interpretations of events is with dualism. Dualism can be defined as a pattern of perception and thought whereby aspects of the world are divided into two, often opposing parts. There are a variety of natural phenomena such as light and shadow which appear to support this view and humans have apparently always possessed the tendency toward psychic dualism. We speak of the “opposites” of day and night, spirit and matter, good and evil, male and female, and so on. Interestingly, many people who suggest that we need to strive to escape such oppositions tend to classify binary oppositions as being typical of ‘Western’ thought. However its worth noting that it is not simply a Western phenomenon. George Boole, the inventor of Boolean logic (in which all values are reduced to TRUE or FALSE) was deeply influenced by classical Indian logic, which is itself rife with sharp distinctions. Taoism has also been described as fundamentally dualist. The tendency to create a global binary between Western and Eastern thought just goes to show how easy it is, even for those seeking to escape such oppositions, to fall into this pattern of thinking.

Neurological research of human emotions has also helped to explain the nature of this seemingly inherent dualistic psychological pattern. According to American Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, any stimulus entering our central nervous system is immediately relayed in two directions; to the cerebral cortex, which mediates cognitive, logical processing and precise recognition, and to the amygdala, a tiny subcortical structure mediating an emotional reaction to the object under scrutiny. Although the cortex and amygdala are activated at about the same time, the amygdala decides whether we like the object or not, and may even initiate a behavioural response, all before the cortex has even managed to figure out what the object actually is, and long before we are aware of any conscious thought or feeling. Essentially, the brain gives an emotional label to each object as “good” or “bad” even before we have been able to cognitively grasp what that object is.

There is a pretty good reason for our brains to this kind of ‘black or white’ thinking. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah such as ‘can I eat this’ or ‘will this kill me’ are sorted out most effectively by the use of binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/non-predator. etc. The drawbacks to this process of internal categorisation didn’t really seem to bother other ancestors. There’s no significant middle ground between food and nonfood, say, or between predator and nonpredator, and so the reactive response we’re discussing excludes the possibility of middle ground; either you can eat something or you can’t, either something will eat you or it won’t. So far so good. The problems come as our reasoning brains have developed over the top of our social primate brains.

The more complex sets of classifications that the reasoning mind can use, and the complex relationships that develop once this reasoning mind gets to work alongside essentially social nature, results in the production of a great deal of middle ground (the 50,000 shades of grey of the title). Of itself this isn’t a problem, the problem comes when our hardwired ability to make snap black and white judgements, an ability that remains lurking just below the surface, suddenly takes over. Often all it takes is sufficient stress for this behavioural response to come the surface. In the survival situation our ancestors found themselves in, there was little room for maybe this or maybe that, and so in an uncertain, stressful situation, we had to make a ‘fight or flight’ decision and act on it. Unfortunately, for many of us in the 21st century, life feels – and is – increasingly precarious. We are surrounded by uncertainty. More often than not, for most of us, this uncertainty is not actually physically threatening, but the perception of threat can still trigger the same kind of fight or flight responses that result in binary thinking kicking in, the middle ground disappearing, and people thinking, saying and doing incredibly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives.

Linguistically we probably aren’t doing ourselves many favours either. English is the worlds most widely spoken language. While the spread of english around the globe is largely a result of British Colonialism and subsequent American Imperialism, english thrives nearly everywhere partly as a result of it being rich in simple terms of description. This linguistic structure gives it a tendency to invite binary thinking that some  non-Western languages like Mandarin and Japanese partly avoid. English speakers born into the language often think in terms of polar opposites: winning versus losing, succeeding versus failing, happy versus sad, mental health versus mental illness, and so on. This kind of two-tailed logic isn’t encouraged by the English language alone but it does push us towards being definitive. Anybody who has read George Orwell’s 1984 will have been struck by the familiar message of ‘Big brother is watching you’ and his warnings against omnipresent surveillance. They will also be familiar with the way in which the state uses Newspeak, an altered form of regular english, to suppress free thought, individualism and happiness. Words do our thinking for us in so much as language lays down the tracks of our consciousness. This being the case, English sometimes reduces our abilities to see the world in a range of hues beyond black and white.

There seems to be a strong correlation between ‘all or nothing’ binary thinking and mental health. The more polarised our thoughts become, the more likely we are to become depressed because extreme either/or thinking stimulates the emotions much more. Statements like “I’m an awful person”, “She is perfect” or “I’m a total failure”, oversimplify life and can cause massive emotional swings. Very few relationships,  jobs or anything else are ‘complete disasters.’ It is far more likely that they consisted of a number of different positive and negative elements within them. Learning to see shades of grey can therefore serve as a powerful tool for overcoming depression.

The concept of splitting, another term for ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ thinking was developed by Scottish Psychiatrist Ronald Fairbairn. In his analysis, splitting begins with the inability of the infant to resolve the fulfilling aspects of the parents (the good object) and their unfulfilling / unresponsive aspects (the unsatisfying object) into the same individuals, with the result that the good and bad are seen as separate. An inability to bring together the positive and negative dimensions of the self and others into a single and realistic whole is a common defence mechanism which results in people seeing an individuals actions and motivations as either all good or all bad.

Splitting is often associated with people suffering from Narcissistic and Borderline Personality disorders. Splitting serves as a defensive mechanism; allowing the narcissist to stabilize their sense of self positivity and preserve their self-esteem by perceiving themselves as purely upright or admirable and others as purely wicked or contemptible, while for those suffering from Borderline Personality disorder, splitting can result in a  pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by an alternation between extremes of idealization and devaluation.

Having worked and volunteered on both sides of the statutory / non-statutory divide that exists within mental health services in this country, I have some issues with the medical model of mental health in general and the extent to which focus can be placed on a diagnostic label as opposed to the actual symptoms and lived experienced of somebody suffering with poor mental health. Here too, the English language again plays a role in pushing us towards the definitive. It’s hard, for example, for us to think of someone as being a little bit schizophrenic. This focus on labels has spread beyond the boundaries of mental health services. Increasingly, individuals with no training whatsoever appear to be willing and ready to ‘diagnose’ (and seek to stigmatise) people within their personal lives with one disorder or another, based on little more than something they have read on the internet and their own prejudices / issues with that person.

If a tendency to focus on diagnostic labels within professional mental health services can be problematic then obviously it is even more dangerous when undertaken by members of the general public. As such it reflects an extreme version of binary thinking whereby a simple  but already problematic good / bad dichotomy arising from personal conflict (you are bad and I am good) is pathologised into becoming a healthy / sick one. I know what it is like to be around somebody who tends to flip between extremes of idealisation and devaluation. However, while a I am painfully aware of the devastating impact that this can wreak on a relationship, I would never dream of trying to ‘diagnose’ them.

In my previous post Detox Culture and the rise of Toxic people, I asked people to consider whether the use of the Toxic label might simply serve to reduce people down to a caricature of their most negative traits, an act which seems to fit well within the framework of using binary thinking or splitting, as outlined in the paragraph above, as a defence mechanism. In the piece, I also asked readers whether ‘Toxic’ behaviour might be the consequence of trauma, discrimination, low self esteem and depression. Given the relationship between stress, depression and all or nothing / black and white thinking, might binary thinking therefore have a role to play not only in the performance of ‘Toxic’ behaviour but also in our efforts to ascribe this label to difficult people?

Our tendency towards psychic dualism, amplified by exposure to stress, and influenced by the way in which we emotionally and physically bond to our caregivers as infants, can have a significant and detrimental impact on our lives and relationships. Having looked at the neurological and psychological aspects of this phenomenon, I want to also explore whether there are other social and cultural factors which are encouraging us to see the world in black and white.

I have a feeling that i’m probably not exactly the first blogger to take a quick pop at the state of the education system in this country and I certainly won’t be the last. But having already  looked at the way in which the relationship between child and parent can impact on peoples long term psychological development, surely our earliest years of schooling have an impact too? The particular bone I wish to pick today is with the relentless (and growing) focus on testing and examinations. Not only does the relentless testing regime experienced by children in this country tend to result in formulaic learning, devoid of creativity, breadth and freedom of thought, but more importantly, at least in the context of this argument, it leads to children becoming increasingly terrified of making mistakes. Mistakes are only helpful if we believe that the process of learning – which inevitably must include the process of erring – is just as, or more, important than getting to the correct answer.Unfortunately, success in school is too often defined as high marks on tests, and if results are all that matter in education, then mistakes play no positive role. If people are afraid of mistakes, then they become afraid of trying new things, of being creative, of thinking in a different way and of taking responsibility for their actions. Perfectionism can be understood as being a product of unacknowledged shame. When mistakes are made (as they inevitably always are) they increasingly come to represent failure and as such are a profoundly harmful source of shame.

Encouraging children to think that there are only right and wrong answers to questions, and to think that there is something wrong about getting things wrong, only reinforces our propensity for seeing things in black and white. If we have grown up learning to  fear mistakes and associate ‘getting things wrong’ with feelings of shame and failure, is it really so surprising that during times of extreme stress, such as when we are experiencing conflict within our personal lives, we tend to find it much easier to apportion blame entirely on the doorstep of one person (be this ourselves or somebody else, depending on our own self-perception) rather than to seek to explore responsibility in a more equitable manner?

One of oppression’s principal effects is shame. Oppressive power systems confer a status of inferiority onto select groups, which is then internalized and taken for granted, resulting in a strengthening of the dominant group’s hold on power. Interestingly, however, the shaming of those who are considered to have erred is also prevalent within those very communities that have sought to challenge some of the established yet unequal  binaries within society. The political critique of binary oppositions is an important part of third wave feminism, post-colonialism and critical race theory, which argue that the perceived binary dichotomy between man/woman, civilized/uncivilised, and white/black have perpetuated and legitimized Western power structures favouring white men. In the last fifteen years therefore it has become routine for much social, political and historical analysis to address the variables of gender, class, sexuality, race and ethnicity.

Identity politics is a politics that stresses strong collective group identities as the basis of political analysis and action. As political engagement with society as a whole was increasingly been perceived to have produced insufficient progress or solutions, many progressives have retreated into a focus on their own “self” and into specific cultural and ideological identity groups which make rights, status, and privilege claims on the basis of a victimized identity. Identity politics is centered on the idea that activism involves groups’ turning inward and stressing separatism, strong collective identities, and political goals focused on psychological and personal self-esteem. As such, one of the functions of identity politics can be considered to be an effort to counteract the shaming effects of oppression.

The problem with identity politics however, is that different groups can end up vying with one another for social recognition of their oppression. The demarcation of identity via rigid definitions and boundaries can easily lead to a new and deeply problematic binary; that of us and them. “Us” helps us think of others as part of our circle and can help create a sense of solidarity and collective strength. Them on the other hand can all too easily used as a fence to keep others out. ‘Them’ can be used to help us to glue ideas together without negative consequences but when we appropriate it to put a barrier around groups we intend to keep at a distance, we don’t just make it more difficult to form the broader coalitions necessary to achieve systemic change within society, but we actually  engender a disregard for the rest of society. At its core, identify politics advocates a retreat into the protection of the self based on the celebration of group identity. As Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri state, the revolutionary take on race, gender and sexuality struggles goes far beyond the demand that different identities be recognised but ultimately is about the dismantling of identity itself;

“The revolutionary process of the abolition of identity, we should keep in mind, is monstrous, violent and traumatic. Don’t try to save yourself – in fact, your self has, to be sacrificed! This does not mean that liberation casts us into an indifferent sea with no objects of identification, but rather the existing identities no longer serve as anchors.” 

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri – Commonwealth

While the ability to make rights, status, and privilege claims on the basis of an ‘us’ formed around a victimised identity would appear to have an important function in countering the shame imposed by oppression. There is, within the modern left, also a  corresponding tendency not to tackle shame but to delight in it. The clearest expression of the Left’s relationship with shame and shaming is demonstrated by  what R.L Stephens calls “call out culture.” The “call out” is a form of shaming which seeks to label an individual as fundamentally bad. Often the intent behind this ‘calling out’ is to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, and like they are a better person. This fits to a rather worrying degree the description of the way in which narcissists use ‘splitting’ to stabilise their sense of self-positivity and preserve their self-esteem by perceiving themselves as purely upright or admirable by labeling others as purely wicked or contemptible.

Just as perfectionism is the product of shame, so too is the puritanical ‘holier than thou’ attitude indicative of call-out culture and the waves of shaming that wash through social media. After shame is triggered, a person will typically respond in one of four ways; withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, and attack others. The “call out” is an example of attacking others in response to unacknowledged shame, which then triggers additional shame in the target as well. From a political perspective, shaming individuals as an alternative to concerted political effort and analysis of the structural causes of inequality will never result in the kind of dynamic collective movements required to effectively tackle the material consequences of oppression. That is not to say that people should not be held accountable for their actions, particularly if they are oppressive, only that there are ways of doing so that are more likely to have the intended outcome, providing that the desired outcome is a more just world rather than simply an attempt to boost one’s own ego /  to alleviate your own feelings of shame through the shaming of another.

In the context of personal relationships, feelings of shame (helplessness, impotence, betrayal) which may emerge as a result of another persons problematic behaviour, can – if unacknowledged – end up being expressed as anger, which triggers further shame in the other person, who is then likely to respond in a negative way. This person is then highly unlikely to change their behaviour. This results in what we could call a ‘shame spiral’ whereby anger and shame are traded backward and forwards with no end in sight.

Last night I watched Adam Curtis’s new documentary film HyperNormalisation. In his latest film, Curtis explores the ways in which “we have retreated into a simplified and often completely fake version of the world.” Curtis argues that the collective action of the 60s has been replaced by individualism (the self of identity politics) and that this inward turn, with its emphasis on the transformation of the inner self rather than society, has allowed elites to construct a fake, simplified version of the world. In this vision of the world there are the two kinds of people; the good guys, and the cartoon baddies like Colonel Gaddafi, with no confusing shades of grey in between and no difficult and uncomfortable questions. The parallels between the black and white world described by these elite narratives and the simple good and bad, us and them binary trap that many of us, with the assistance of the internet as echo chamber, fall into within our own lives are obvious. In both cases, at the personal and political level, an unwillingness or inability to search for and accept a more uncomfortable truth can have profoundly negative consequences.

If we are seeking justice over its opposite; then we have to acknowledge that dualism as of itself cannot be held entirely responsible. However, in order to fully acknowledge the 50,000 shades of grey that exist between simple black and white interpretations of the world around us we also have to be able to see ourselves and others as inhabitants of this same spectrum, living in a constant state of flux. The problem with ‘call out’ culture and the terminology of ‘toxic people’ is not only that they risk fixing the accused in a permanent position of shame (and thus inadvertently – or not – engendering additional feelings of fear, blame and disconnection for the accused), but the accusers, in doing so, may also be seeking to position themselves in an unrealistic position of untouchable virtue. There is a danger then that calling out can simply serve as a tool for individuals to create their own fake and simplified reality operating along simple binary terms.

If we have a neurological predisposition towards binary thinking that is reinforced by our language, if systemic oppression and even our education system tends to engender feelings of shame within us, and if this shame results in a tendency towards crippling perfectionism, moral puritanism, the re-assertion of self through rigidly boundaried group identities built around a victimised identity, and further victimisation of the self / other, well… we’ve got ourselves into something of a pickle at both the personal and the political level. So whats the answer? Is there even an answer?

Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston has been studying courage, empathy and shame for the last ten years. Brown identifies empathy and shame as forms of vulnerability. When we are open about our strengths and our struggles (even our mistakes), our vulnerability moves us towards empathy, towards being vulnerable with other people in their vulnerability. When we hide parts of ourselves from others because we fear disconnection, that moves us towards shame. According to Brown, empathy is the antidote to shame. Rather than hiding our vulnerabilities and sinking into a shame spiral, if we can have the courage to tell our stories we can escape from shame. The good news here is that we are naturally predisposed towards telling stories. The bad news is that we live in a culture of fear where we are afraid of not fitting in, of being judged or rejected, and where there are other strategies (blaming oneself or others for example) that are much easier to adopt.

In order to overcome what Brown calls an ‘epidemic of shame’, we need the courage to tell our stories and the compassion to hear them being told. This can be tricky because just listening to shame can be shaming and result in blame and judgement, particularly when somebody else is struggling with their own authenticity or sense of worthiness. Share a shame story with the wrong person and they become ‘one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.’ The answer, according to Brown is therefore to find a person who has earned the right to hear the story and with whom you are in a relationship where they can bear the story.

I went for lunch recently with a very good friend of mine and we were talking about whether and how it is possible to find a sweet spot between not writing people off, trying to use compassion and empathy to see past what we might consider to be problematic behaviour, and the need to protect yourself and your own wellbeing in the face of said behaviour. I guess we have both felt like we’ve gone too far in one direction and were struggling to find a happy compromise. The answer, according to Brown and her research, is that the people who are able to be the most compassionate and empathetic are those who have the strictest boundaries about what is and isn’t ok. When we fail to set boundaries, we let people do things that are not ok for us and we end up becoming resentful and hateful.

So there we go, it all sounds so simple doesn’t it? And yet looking back at previous blog posts I can see in my own writing a tendency towards binary thinking, whereby in my desire to shoot down whatever position I might be critiquing (and its simplistic black and white logic), my writing  loses subtlety and gains instead a tendency to sound more definitive than perhaps it should. The end result is that things start looking a little bit too black and white here too. In a similar vein, looking back at my own life I can see the occasions in which my own feelings of helplessness impotence or betrayal have resulted in me simply reallocating this shame by calling out (rather than calling in) whoever I felt was responsible for triggering it. I can also see moments when my own lack of boundaries may have been an equally relevant factor in causing these feelings. I can also identify moments where I have sought to share my story with people who had neither the desire, nor the capacity to hear them in a compassionate way. It would be easy to feel ashamed about these things. It is hard not to feel shame, particularly when we feel that other people are actively seeking to shame us, or when we have a tendency to do all of the work for them ourselves anyway. What is much more important, however, is to actually learn from our mistakes, to work on our own discernment and ability to hold boundaries, to always keep our eyes peeled for the shades of grey, and to practise not only sharing our vulnerability with other people, but also to practise being vulnerable towards other people in their vulnerability.