Last week I talked about black and white thinking (BWT) as it relates to my education. This week, I want to move on to talk about how my BWT has affected my relationships. It starts with the way I see people.

Good vs. Bad

To me, people are either good or bad and nothing in-between. There are variations within each category, and there are also people I don’t know that don’t get sorted, but everyone I meet gets sorted into one category or the other. It’s not something I do consciously. It wasn’t even anything I was aware of until recently.

I think mainly I had this idea of what a good person was and what a bad person was. A good person was supposed to be kind and honest and loyal and dedicated and heroic and smart and humble. A bad person was pretty much the opposite: arrogant and selfish and thoughtless and dishonest and conniving. That probably seems harsh, but most people I knew fell into the good category. And I judged myself by the same standards, except I was in my own head, so my intentions went in the mix as well.

For instance, in the ninth grade I had a boyfriend when a cute new boy arrived in our school. I had no idea how he felt about me, but I knew that my interest in him meant I needed to break up with my boyfriend. That was a black and white issue for me: interest in a new boy meant I was cheating, if only by intention, and I wouldn’t allow myself to be a cheater.

Stay in Your Category, Dammit!

Once I put you in a category, you pretty much stayed there. If I thought you were a good person, a friend, and you did something on the bad list, I pretty much wrote it off as a fluke. If I thought you were a bad person and you did something on the good list, my brain broke. And then I wrote it off as a fluke. And that’s the way I made sense of the world.

In high school, I was a member of the show choir. One of my friends, also in the choir, had an issue with being on time. In that she never was. That pretty much falls under the umbrella of thoughtlessness, but she was my friend and I swept it aside. When we were seniors, another girl with punctuality issues joined the choir, only I didn’t like her. One concert off campus they were both an hour late; missed the whole thing. I was furious, we all were. But I was mostly furious with the girl I didn’t like. I read her the riot act…in a note because that’s the only way I could handle confrontation. I don’t think I ever said anything about it to my friend.

Switching Categories

There have been a handful of people who have switched lists in my life, all from the good list to the bad, and only one or two who have switched back. To go from the good list to the bad, you have to amass a lot of bad behavior, usually in a short period, to overcome me writing it off. Once you switched lists in my head, I would stop talking to you. And that, I think, holds the key to my BWT in this area. I knew how to relate to a friend and I knew how to relate to someone I didn’t like without (usually) tipping them off, but I didn’t know how to treat someone who suddenly had qualities I didn’t like mixed in with the ones I did. I didn’t know what to say or how to pretend that my world wasn’t turned upside down by this anomaly.

High school is such a microcosm that I look there for evidence of how I interacted socially in my youth. The choir was the place I belonged in high school. They were my group and I was all in. Sophomore year I loved them all and thought they all accepted me. Junior year, I had broken up with my boyfriend who was also in the show choir. I tried for a while to still hang out with our mutual friends in the choir, I’ll call them the Montagues, but it just wasn’t working. I started spending a lot of time with the people in the choir, the Capulets, who weren’t quite as friendly with my ex.

I grew really close with the Capulets. We didn’t always agree, in fact we liked to argue about philosophical and social issues. It was usually them against me, but that was okay because I trusted them. They were definitely on my good list. And we stayed close even when we went to colleges spread across the country. We wrote long letters and called each other whenever we could.

One night I opened up to one of the Capulets about something deeply personal to me. We discussed it for hours on the phone that night. On a visit home not long after, a different friend asked me about the issue. I was taken aback because that night on the phone was the only conversation I’d had about it with anyone, so I asked how she knew. Turns out she overheard this Capulet’s younger sister talking to some people at school about it. I don’t think I have ever, before or since, felt so betrayed. He holds the record time for switching from my good list to the bad list.

But Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About You

Anyway, back in my junior year of high school, avoiding my ex outside of school hours meant I stopped hanging out with the Montagues. It was nothing about them and I thought they understood that. I’ve always had a tendency to assume other people know exactly what’s going on in my head. I generally think I’m the last one to come around to what everyone else already knows, so of course they already know what I’m thinking. They’ve been waiting for me to catch up.

So, I thought the Montagues understood my distance. As I said, I grew closer to the group I was hanging out with, the Capulets. The Montagues started to call us the righteous crowd, I guess because some of the group was very religious and the Montagues felt we were judging them. But I wasn’t and I thought they knew that. Until I opened my music folder one day and found a note inside. I don’t remember the exact words, but it basically said I used to be nice until I joined the righteous crowd. I wasn’t sure who wrote it, but it didn’t really matter. I was on the Montagues’ bad list and I didn’t know how to act around them anymore. And I was deeply hurt.

What Do You Think About Me?

I didn’t consciously pay attention to whether or not I liked someone. The good list/bad list is just a way to explain now how I felt then, not something I actually thought about at the time. What I did think about, what I was very (probably overly) concerned with, was whether or not people liked me.

Sometime after the note in my folder, I had a party at my house and some of the Montague group was there. We played a game called Scruples that was popular at the time. One of my questions was about loyalty and I said I was loyal to my friends no matter what. One of the boys in the group the note came from said that he didn’t believe me based on how I had treated an ex-boyfriend after we’d broken up. I was floored. And I felt guilty for years, wondering if he was right. He was (I assume is) a great guy, very caring and loyal himself, so I thought he must be right.

Somewhere along the way, I realized it’s not that simple. It’s not black and white. I am a loyal friend. I’ll go to the mat for my friends no matter what. Friends being the operative word there. Because, in my book, that’s what friends do.