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An example of polarized thinking is, I'm a complete failure, while my sister is a complete success or He's perfect at everything he does, and I'm a total klutz or I'm unlucky all the time, while my best friend is always lucky. In a nutshell, black-and-white thinking oversimplifies the fact that people are complex and life is complicated. The more polarized a person's thinking, the more vulnerable they are to the downside of social comparisons both online and in real life, which leads to feelings like inferiority, a false sense of superiority, and depression. Social-media content is highly controlled and reveals to its consumers only bits and pieces of another person's life and experiences, making black-and-white thinking more likely. Snygg and Combs give the example of two men driving at night on a western road. An object looms up in the middle of the road ahead. One of the men sees a large boulder, and reacts with fright. The other, a native of the country, sees a tumbleweed and reacts with nonchalance. Each reacts to the reality as perceived. This proposition could be illustrated from the daily experience of everyone. Two individuals listen to a radio speech made by a political candidate about whom they have no previous knowledge. They are both subjected to the same auditory stimulation. Yet one perceives the candidate as a demagogue, a trickster, a false prophet, and reacts accordingly. The other perceives him as a leader of the people, a person of high aims and purposes. If I share this, what will I need to get back in response? What's the risk that I won't get it? Do I want to risk it? If the person is uncomfortable with what I share, I've crossed that line. I continue to make mistakes, but over time I'm getting better at being able to see where that line is and what works best for me. I pay attention to the past to help me learn.

I also know that there are certain things that I'm more likely to regret sharing with people, so I can protect those particular topics, at least until significant trust is built. Before I tell a secret, I imagine what it would be like to have that secret out. EXPRESSING VULNERABILITY WILL HURT SOMETIMES When I came up against writer's block with this article, I asked people in my community to come to an experimental event. In reality, if we aren't in personal contact with those we follow, we truly have no way of knowing what their life was like before they posted or afterward. Social media or any virtual encounter cannot replace the fuller and richer human experience one gains from in-person interactions. Eye contact, the human voice, touch, flowing conversation, emotional intimacy, and appreciation of another's essence cannot be replicated by virtual encounters. Plus, studies show that having frequent interactions with friends and family combats symptoms of depression and anxiety. Skill-Building Strategies The truth is, for most people, things aren't completely horrible or completely wonderful. They fall somewhere in the middle--in life's gray zone. Slowing down to think and feel in the gray zone can be immensely helpful in countering cognitive distortions such as black-and-white thinking. Avoid absolutes. Always, impossible, ruined, never, perfect, terrible, and disastrous are absolutes and not at all helpful in understanding relationships or situations that are complex and involve mixed feelings. Each is reacting to the reality as he has perceived it. In the same way, two young parents each perceive differently the behavior of their offspring. The son and daughter have differing perceptions of their parents. And the behavior in all these instances is appropriate to the reality-as-perceived. This same proposition is exemplified in so-called abnormal conditions as well. The psychotic who perceives that his food is poisoned, or that some malevolent group is out to get him, reacts to his reality-as-perceived in much the same fashion that you or I would respond if we (more realistically) perceived our food as contaminated, or our enemies as plotting against us.

To understand this concept that reality is, for the individual, his perceptions, we may find it helpful to borrow a phrase from the semanticists. They have pointed out that words and symbols bear to the world of reality the same relationship as a map to the territory which it represents. This relationship also applies to perception and reality. We live by a perceptual map which is never reality itself. My words flow when I'm on stage before an audience, so I asked them to hear me out. My vision was to let loose a stream of consciousness on the material I was struggling with at the keyboard and record the results. I would be speaking off the cuff, I warned, so please come only if you can deal with things going very wrong. I posted the invitation and then had a meltdown. I should cancel. How could I embarrass myself like this? Reveal my inadequacy? I'm a known public speaker. A published writer. I want a reputation for saying important, transformative stuff. Cultivate self-talk that's compassionate and forgiving, such as, It's good enough and There is no such thing as perfect. Work on becoming less rigid in your thinking. Challenge your thoughts. Ask yourself, Is it possible to be a generally intelligent person but not proficient in everything? Or Can what I'm facing be difficult now but get better in time? Accept the fact that no one is perfect.

We're all human; Try to see the value in learning from our mistakes. Learn to physically relax and cognitively slow down. Black-and-white thinking spikes when emotions are high. This is a useful concept to keep in mind, for it may help to convey the nature of the world in which the individual lives. To the present writer it seems unnecessary to posit or try to explain any concept of true reality. For purposes of understanding psychological phenomena, reality is, for the individual, his perceptions. Unless we wish to involve ourselves in philosophical questions, we do not need to attempt to solve the question as to what really constitutes reality. For psychological purposes, reality is basically the private world of individual perceptions, though for social purposes reality consists of those perceptions which have a high degree of commonality among various individuals. Thus this desk is real because most people in our culture would have a perception of it which is very similar to my own. While it is not necessary for our purposes to define any absolute concept of reality, it should be noted that we are continually checking our perceptions against one another, or adding them one to another, so that they become more reliable guides to reality. For example, I see some salt in a dish. That, for me at that instant, is reality. If I taste it and it tastes salty, my perception is further confirmed. This is part of what makes me feel valued. But my authentic self is hardly so articulate. Particularly when not rehearsed, I spill out things that are wrong or incomplete. I stumble or take too long to get to the point. I was writing a article about belonging and yet I was afraid I would no longer belong, panicked at the idea of showing my authentic self. The invitation was already out in the ether, so I forced myself to go through with my plan.

During the event, I bounced back and forth between feeling great at times, and inadequate at others. Was I delivering? Afterwards I had one of those intense and painful vulnerability hangovers I described previously, feeling sure that everyone now knew I wasn't the person reflected in my public persona, that I was a sham. I still haven't entirely recovered, to be honest, and quail a little when I run into people who attended. Breathe slowly, and use relaxation techniques to curb emotional arousal and allow your more rational self to take over. What to Do Now We now know that drawing social comparisons is a part of being human. We all do it, whether or not we're conscious of or admit to it. Although drawing social comparisons can be positive for our self-development and emotional growth by providing us with inspiration, not everyone fares well when drawing social comparisons. For some, they bring about emotional pain by stirring up self-destructive feelings of envy, shame, and inadequacy, destroying the cultivation of healthy self-esteem and hope. In my personal and professional experience, social comparisons that harm our emotional well-being rarely, if ever, have a positive impact. They don't snap us into feeling better, and neither do they force us to make life-changing decisions that dramatically improve our lives. Rather, harmful social comparisons, like upward and downward comparisons, can trick our brains into believing that leading our best lives comes from looking outside of ourselves rather than within. The idea that negative social comparisons can act as a catalyst for positive change is a terrible misconception, because it denies the reality that we are all unique individuals, with our own unique set of strengths, talents, and, yes, weaknesses. But if it tastes sweet, my whole interpretation of the situation is changed, and both in seeing and tasting I perceive the material as sugar. Thus each perception is essentially a hypothesis -- a hypothesis related to the individual's need -- and many of these perceptions are tested and re-tested by experience. As Burrow puts it, Man's consistent relationship to the outer world came about through the agreement of his own sequence of sense-reactions with the sequence of reactions existing outside him. Only man's neural conformity to the observable consistency of external phenomena has made possible the intelligent consistency of his own behavior in respect to the outer world. It acquires a certain predictability upon which we depend. Yet mingled with these perceptions, which have been confirmed by a variety of experiences, are perceptions which remain completely unchecked.