Therapy for white supremacy culture: Either/or thinking

A white person's hand on a black background reaches down from the top of the image. A black person's hand on a white background reaches up from the bottom of the image. White supremacy depends on either/or, black or white, good or bad, binary thinking.
Click on the image to be taken to the full Instagram post.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about the characteristics of white supremacy culture, as presented by Tema Okun, and I’ve taken a closer look at fear and perfectionism specifically. Today I’ll continue that examination with a third major characteristic of white supremacy culture, which is either/or (or binary) thinking, and how it gets in the way of a meaningful life.

Tema Okun describes either/or thinking as “our cultural assumption that we can and should reduce the complexity of life and the nuances of our relationships with each other and all living things into either/or, yes or no, right or wrong in ways that reinforce toxic power.” This way of thinking is highly simplistic, and leads to hasty generalizations that often aren’t true or helpful and which serve to justify an unjust decision or status quo. It is based in fear, because of the often high stakes that are presumed to depend on us falling on the “right side” of the binary, and this fear reinforces perfectionism. Without this fear, perfectionism, and either/or thinking—all of which are ways of seeing the world—we would have an easier time seeing reality as it is (neither good nor bad), accepting ourselves and others as we are (just doing our best with what we know, trying to operate the world’s most complicated computer that somehow got attached to a relatively hairless primate), and acknowledging that life is more complicated than a binary suggests. All of which would contribute to a more relaxed and flexible way of being, which is exactly the opposite of white supremacy culture.

But let’s say you don’t believe that these characteristics have anything to do with white supremacy—or let’s say that you do, but you don’t see how understanding them and their relevance to you and your life could be really important when there are so many other more pressing things to pay attention to right now. “I’m not a white supremacist! Why should I be paying attention to my mindset?” There are three good reasons to pay attention:

  1. I believe that a meaningful and fulfilling life—one in which a person is able to identify and live according to their deepest values—is every person’s birthright. I believe that when we neglect to do what we can to live such a life, we are accepting an unnecessary burden that lessens our enjoyment of life, and also lessens our ability to show up with love and compassion for others.
  2. I believe that mindset is one of the biggest obstacles to living a fulfilling life. In saying this, I’m not discounting the influence of systemic oppression or other things that are outside of our immediate control. They do have a very strong influence. But the only thing that I can influence today is my mindset and my choices.
  3. There are other people doing this important inner work already, and the best way to support them is to join them. Embarking on a personal growth path is often lonely in this individualistic culture, because you realize how little control you have over anything outside of yourself, and it can be a huge morale-boost to encounter and befriend and collaborate with others on the path.

Bottom line, you’re not doing anyone any favors by ignoring your mindset. But just in case you’re still doubting, I’m going to give you a look inside my personal life at how either/or thinking has been an obstacle on my path towards living a fulfilling life informed by my values. In each case, mindset work has been hugely important.

Love

Attachment wounds in childhood have made me sensitive to disapproval from a partner. When my partner approves of me, I perceive her as “good” and “right,” but when she is disapproving of me, I perceive her as “bad” and “wrong.” This overly simplistic perception is not only untrue, but it causes me to withhold love at times, and at other times it causes the love that I do give forth to be conditional, and therefore not authentic.

Humor

Back when I was dabbling in stand-up comedy, I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful experience performing in front of a friendly crowd of mostly strangers. It was one of the most fun and amazing experiences of my life, and I wanted to do it again very soon. However, in the weeks that followed, my either/or way of thinking set in, and I started seeing potential performance opportunities as either “good” or “bad” settings to perform in, and the overthinking eventually caused me to give up on performing again.

Justice and Healing

For a long time I have been confused about what my mission was in life. I care about social justice, but I’m in a healing profession. Either/or thinking caused me to take about 10 years to finally realize a dream of working on both at the same time.

Spirituality and Responsibility

Is life happening for me, or is it happening to me? Is life a beautiful gift, or is life a bitch and then you die? Is suffering a part of life, or is suffering optional? Are people good or are people sinners? Is it all love and light, or are we all fallen angels? Am I perfect the way I am, or is personal growth important? Why should I be impeccable with my word if we are all also being encouraged to not take things personally or make assumptions? There seem to be so many dichotomies and binaries in contemporary spiritual practice and personal development work, and believing that I had to choose one reality over the other was a major obstacle to my personal and spiritual growth. Ironically, one of my very first spiritual experiences came with one such message (“Don’t offend others, but also don’t be offended.”), but either/or thinking was not that easy to get rid of.

Community

Living in community can be so rewarding, but it also comes with its challenges. Recently our chosen family arrived at a choice point that rested on a crucial question: can we continue to live together and still pursue our individual interests? We almost chose to give up on living together in part because I was ready to accept that it really was an either/or situation. Fortunately, one of the benefits of living in community is that even when I’m stuck in either/or thinking, one of my companions is there to help pull me out of it.

How to ACT in the face of either/or thinking

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a powerful therapeutic and coaching modality that uses mindfulness to help us notice and be present with our thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. In addition, it connects us with our values so that we can choose our response from a grounded place. Either/or thinking is something that we can practice defusing from, meaning we identify the thought as a thought with no special authority over how we choose to act. In addition to noticing the thought in a mindful way, we can also practice noticing what action the thought would have influenced us to take if we hadn’t caught it in time. Does this action line up with our values? If not, then we can use our commitment to our values to lead us towards a different response. And remember, practice and progress are both more important and attainable than perfection.

***

Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds) and a coach for HELPAs (Healers, Educators, Leaders, Parents, Activists & Artists) wanting to build a life of sustainable selfless service. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

Leave a Reply