The phrase “gray area” often carries a negative connotation. Gray areas are murky, confusing, and even chaotic. In a world where people value certainty and quick, clear answers, a gray area can feel frustrating or inhibiting. In reality, however, gray areas offer remarkable nuance and present us with opportunities to learn, grow, and expand our horizons. If we can learn how to live in gray areas, we’ll experience less anxiety and more peace and contentment.
Why we resist gray areas
When we don’t allow ourselves to live in gray areas, we’re effectively practicing all-or-nothing thinking. If there’s no middle ground, then the truth exists at either one end of the spectrum or the other. This type of thinking is common in people with anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. These people think they’re either safe or in danger, sad or happy, worthy or flawed. There’s no nuance or gradation.
The problem is, all-or-nothing thinking is really easy to give in to.
For one thing, thinking in black and white is much easier than thinking in shades of gray (at least on the surface). It requires less of our brains. We don’t have to sit with the dissonance, or try to figure out where exactly we fit on a grand spectrum. We’re either at one end or the other. And since our brains are constantly trying to conserve energy, this way of thinking is enticing.
Similarly, all-or-nothing thinking can bring us a measure of false confidence or calm. When we think in binary terms, it’s easy to land on the answer, which can help us feel like we have things “figured out.” Even if the conclusion you’ve come to is something that makes you unhappy, you might take comfort in having an answer, even if you don’t like what that answer is.
Of course, that’s all on the surface. Underneath the false simplicity and confidence of all-or-nothing thinking lies even more uncertainty and sadness—it’s just repressed. Real simplicity and contentment comes from recognizing that the truth exists in shades of gray.
The power of embracing the gray
Learning how to live in gray areas can have a bigger impact on your life than you might realize. In fact, it can help you:
- Experience less anxiety. Black-or-white thinking feeds anxiety, worry, doubt, and fear. If there are only two options, you’ll feel like your chances of happiness or success are much slimmer.
- Accept imperfections. Perfectionism is dangerous and unhealthy. Because it’s impossible to be perfect, setting standards of perfection will always leave us feeling like we come up short. Gray areas allow you to see that even if “perfect” is not achievable, “good” is an acceptable alternative.
- Develop healthier habits. People who think in black-or-white tend to try to avoid gray areas at all costs. This often leads to unhealthy habits—alcoholism, drug use, numbing behaviors, etc. Embracing the gray can help you be more comfortable with the uncertainty of the middle ground, so these unhealthy behaviors don’t feel as necessary.
- Be more positive. The negativity bias states that negative things tend to affect us more profoundly than positive things. That is, if your day is filled with five good things and one bad thing, you’ll probably still focus on the bad thing. When you have black-or-white thinking, which effectively makes everything either “good” or “bad,” with no room in between, you’re more likely to let the negative have more of an impact on your mood and your life. Gray areas can help you see that most things are somewhere between “good” and “bad,” and you don’t have to see everything as one or the other.
How to live in gray areas
Some people find it easier to live in gray areas than others. Whether it comes naturally to you or not, there are some things you can do to help yourself embrace the gray areas in life.
Sometimes, we see the world in black-and-white because we feel afraid of getting “lost” in the gray areas. But living in the gray areas doesn’t mean you have to give up on your standards or principles. In fact, you should set clear boundaries that will help provide a sense of stability for you as you start to navigate more gray areas.
Think about food, for example. Some people are quick to label foods as either “good” (vegetables) or “bad” (Twinkies). But the truth is that there’s more nuance here. Some vegetables may trigger an upset stomach or even an allergic reaction in some people; and a Twinkie now and then probably isn’t going to cause any harm.
For someone who is trying to eat healthy, exploring this gray area can be scary. “If I allow myself to eat a Twinkie, it’ll be a slippery slope to other junk foods, and I won’t reach my goals.” This is where boundaries can help. Maybe you allow yourself one treat a day. Maybe you’ll eat dark chocolate, but not milk chocolate. The point is setting a boundary that will help you navigate the gray area so that it doesn’t feel as uncertain or vague.
Embrace AND thinking
I discussed OR vs. AND thinking in this post about being unapologetic and kind. Many times, we present ourselves with false choices: we can either be bold or timid, be introverted or extroverted, be liberal or conservative. We see things as one or the other. I’ve been seeing this more and more in American politics lately: either you’re with us, or you’re against us. There is no room for anything in between; no room for partial agreement, healthy debate, or open discussion.
We have to start rejecting these false dichotomies if we want to learn how to live in gray areas. Just because you belong to a certain group doesn’t mean you have to adopt all the beliefs of that group. Refuse to put yourself or others in a box. Allow room for variation and nuance. Give permission for AND instead of always succumbing to OR.
Ask WHY instead of WTF
Another thought shift that can help you live in gray areas is committing to asking WHY instead of WTF. What does that mean?
It means that when you see something that doesn’t automatically make sense to you, get curious instead of judgemental.
The example that always comes to mind when I think about this is my two watches. Wearing two watches started out as a matter of indecision for me (I couldn’t pick between the style of my analog watches and the functionality of my smartwatch), but I’ve since realized that it actually benefits me in other ways as well. (You can read more about that here.)
Of course, some people see my two watches and automatically think I made a mistake (at best) or I’ve gone crazy (at worst). Instead of asking me why I’m wearing two watches, they pass judgement on me.
I’ve found that there is usually a decent explanation for things I don’t understand. If I make the effort to be curious about them, I can often learn something.
This helps you embrace gray areas because it helps you explore the areas between right and wrong, good and bad, sane or insane. Curiosity moves you into the gray area and allows you to consider the possibility of a “truth” that’s different than the one you’ve believed.
Be willing to go there. Ask WHY instead of WTF.
Challenge your own thinking.
We all tell ourselves stories that don’t necessarily serve us. Even ideas that we’ve held on to for a very long time could be hurting us in ways that we aren’t even aware of.
The problem is that those injuries eventually catch up with us. At some point, we start feeling like something is “wrong” or “off,” even if we can’t quite put our fingers on what it is.
It might be a belief or opinion that is holding you back.
For example: I have a friend who is an ambitious business owner. He started realizing, however, that he felt unfulfilled, and impatient for success that (in his mind) wasn’t coming. It didn’t take long for these feelings to take over, leaving him feeling like a failure.
Long story short, my friend had to challenge some other beliefs he was holding on to in order to move through that low point. He believed, for example, that if he was patient with himself, he would never get what he wanted. He believed that it was impossible for him to be patient and ambitious (see above re: AND thinking). He had to be willing to challenge that belief in order to work on being patient with himself and more content overall.
The bottom line is this: if something feels off in your life, it can almost certainly be tied back to a limiting belief or harmful thought. Be willing to examine your thoughts, and to challenge them. Chances are, you’ll end up in the middle ground—the gray area—where you can find a new thought or belief that will serve you more.
Get to know yourself
There is probably more gray in your life than you think. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll probably realize that you’re confident in some ways and insecure in others, happy in some ways and discontented in others, intelligent about some topics and less educated about others . . .
. . . and that’s all okay.
You are a beautiful and unique combination of thoughts, experiences, genetics, emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. You are neither completely “good” or completely “bad”—because no one is.
When you can realize this, you’ll realize that you yourself are composed of shades of gray. You are nuance, contradiction, and subtlety. You are uniquely you.
Your shades of gray are beautiful. Get to know them. The more you do, the easier they’ll be to love, and the easier it will be to live in gray areas in other ways, too.
Learning how to live in gray areas can change your life for the better. It’s changed mine. When we refuse to see the world in black-and-white, we accept the variation and beauty that make things beautiful. We come to understand ourselves and others better. We open ourselves up to new ideas and new possibilities.
Come to the gray side. There’s happiness here.
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