The last few months have been a time of enormous uncertainty. 2020 has been difficult for many people, so it’s important not to make a bad situation worse by choosing drama over calm.
Unfortunately, when times are uncertain and when tensions are running high, many people do just that. In March, when alarm was growing regarding the escalating health crisis, examples of unhelpful dramatising were easy to find on social media. I saw the words “selfish”, “idiots” and “name and shame!” bandied about a lot, often in relation to parents who had brought their children our for a walk; cyclists who may have strayed more than two kilometres beyond their home; people who were deemed to be going to the supermarket too frequently; people not moving to the edge of a footpath when they saw someone else coming towards them; people who moved onto the road to avoid people coming towards them; and so on.
It’s important not to rush to negative judgements. I’ve witnessed many skirmishes online where the person being criticised clarified they had in fact a perfectly good reason for doing what they did. Even if a person is in the wrong, however, it doesn’t mean they are a “selfish idiot”. We all do stupid things occasionally, but that doesn’t mean we’re all stupid. Label the behaviour, not the character.
This kind of thinking is dangerous for many reasons. Before we get into that, however, it’s important to reflect on why people might opt for a dramatic, black-and-white world view. Firstly, dramatic thinking is, well, dramatic. Exclamation marks! Indignation! Shock and horror! Dramatic thinking is many things but it’s not boring.
Secondly, it can lend itself to social bonding. People often bond by lamenting the shortcomings of others. When one person responds to another’s online criticisms and agrees that it is indeed terrible that John or Mary did XYZ, they are effectively saying: I agree with you, I am on your side, we are both upset because we are good people who hate wrongdoing.
Thirdly, as the last line implies, tearing into others can make us feel better about ourselves, make us feel we are smarter and more caring than the person being criticised.
Fourthly, it simplifies the world. The reality is life is messy; good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Instead of battling complexity and ambiguity, it can be emotionally satisfying to simplify things, to opt for false certainty rather than trying to tolerate uncertainty.
However, the cons of this thinking greatly outweigh the pros. It’s not good to casually think certain people are selfish idiots.
It’s not good to say things like “People don’t give a s**t!”
It’s not good to say all politicians are the same, or that some politician or another is a lying so-and-so who is pretending to care so s/he can appear statesmanlike.
It’s not good to think John or Mary are lousy people just because they made a mistake, or because they have a different opinion to you.
It’s not good to pretend you know best, that you know what’s going to happen next, that you know what’s around the corner; you don’t.
This kind of thinking breeds resentment and can become a bad habit. None of us truly see the world as it is; rather, we see the world through our own filters. Entrenched negative beliefs will lead you to see the world through that lens, leading to a bitter outlook that dampens your mood and hurts your relationships.
As I said in my previous column, we can choose to learn from the scientists we have all become familiar with in recent months. That means looking for evidence that contradicts our views, rather than always seeking to confirm them; instead of saying, “I’m right”, look for how you might be wrong. It means looking for the shades of grey rather than having a black-and-white vision of the world. It means opting for calm above drama, and recognising that being “boring” has its benefits.
And if we don’t? ‘If our thinking is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasoning and erroneous interpretations’, to quote the father of CBT, Dr Aaron Beck, ‘we become, in truth, blind and deaf’.
(First published in Southern Star, 16/07/2020)