Over the last 15 years I have been trying to figure out exactly what is going on in other people's heads. And in my own. I'm beginning to suspect that a great many things that clients come to therapy for have to do with black and white thinking.
As I get more experienced in hypnotherapy, my ideas about what causes common problems has continually changed. When I came out of my hypnosis course many years ago my head was filled with NLP and Ericksonian Hypnosis and other good things. The approach to therapy was simple, obvious, and there was a solution to every problem.
Right from my first client, I discovered that this just was not true. Almost everything I had been taught in my course turned out to be simplistic and/or over-hyped.
Black and white thinking
I was reminded of this by a post on another forum that I occasionally visit. A woman there posted a story of how she had many years ago moved to a house near the beach. On her first night there she found it delightful to be lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and a distant foghorn. On the second night she couldn't get to sleep because of the incessant barking of many dogs. She tried to sleep but the barking went on and on and annoyed her so much that she got up out of bed, got into her car and drove towards where she thought the noise was coming from. These noisy neighbors had to be sorted out once and for all. She was just not gonna stand for this.
Then she found the source of the noise. There was a colony of seals on the beach. They were all doing the things seals do, and barking at each other in the dark. It wasn't dogs at all. Sounded just like dogs, but it wasn't dogs. So she went home satisfied that wasn't dogs and went to sleep. The seals barked on many nights, but none of that barking bothered her at all. She just added it to the list of pleasant noises you get when you live by the beach.
Theories about perception
The story illustrated a point about how her feelings changed when her perceptions changed. She was wondering how it is that our perceptions affect our emotions. If we can find a way to change our perceptions, then perhaps that technique could be used in hypnotherapy. There then followed a discussion by many contributors about the nature of perception and how everything is perception.
I thought about this story. And I came to a different conclusion. I don't think her behavior, her ability to sleep after she knew the barking was seals and not dogs, had anything to do with perception. It is actually to do with black and white thinking. It is not that perception affects emotions, it is that emotions influence perceptions.
The starting point for me, is asking why do barking dogs annoy her in the first place? Some people get annoyed by dogs barking, some people just ignore it. It's got nothing to do with the barking, and everything to do with our beliefs about barking. If you believe that dogs barking is just what dogs do, and it's meaningless, that a barking dog is just an unhappy dog, then it doesn't bother you.
If you have a personal belief that dogs should be controlled, that uncontrolled dogs are an indicator of bad training, and caused by inconsiderate people, then those people should be made to change. It is the compulsion, the call to action, that causes the emotions. The emotion is there to make sure you do something about it.
I believe that a great many people, who would be horrified to learn it, actually have black and white thinking. When I discuss it people often say "Oh no. I can see things in shades of grey." But what they don't realize is that they have many rigid internal rules about right and wrong. And those rules are tied to emotion. The woman in the story was so annoyed about the dogs that she got up in the middle of the night to go and sort out the people allowing the dogs to bark. This is classic black and white thinking.
Consequences of black and white thinking
The essence is: "This is wrong. I am allowed to get annoyed about this. I have the right to punish people who don't behave the way I expect them to". My theory is, that for this woman, this was one of her personal beliefs. She has a black-and-white rule about dogs barking. It mustn't be allowed, and it fires off anger inside her when someone contravenes that rule. Anger makes her act. It seems irrational, but it is in complete accordance with her internal rule. And every time it happens she reacts the same way.
She has a different rule about waves on the beach, and foghorns, and for all I know, seagulls and rainstorms and many other things. I would speculate that she has a rule that natural things might be annoying, but they are things that must be accepted, welcomed even.
Reframing the perceptions
Therefore when she discovered that the source of the noise was seals barking, she realised that her rule was not being contravened. There were no grounds for getting angry, and she could sleep through it. It wasn't her perception that changed, the noise was just the same as it had been. What had changed was the realisation that the rule didn't apply in this situation.
Probably, in that town, there were people who also believed that the barking of the seals was barking of dogs. But those people didn't get up in the middle of the night to do something about it. They have a different rule about barking dogs. So it is not about perception, it is beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of other people's behavior.
The woman in the story went on to ask about what she could do to alter her perceptions to stop her getting angry about various things. If she came to see me I would advise her instead to start searching her memory about what it was that created the rule in the first place. Change the rule, and you change the emotional response.