We Need To Get More Comfortable In The Gray Area

If we are ever going to make it through the pandemic

Deb Knobelman, PhD
5 min readFeb 1, 2021


Photo by Talles Alves on Unsplash

I have always been an anxious person, in one form or another.

In graduate school, I remember laying flat on the floor of the second year students’ shared office space. Staring up at the pockmarked ceiling tiles and wrapped around the overflowing trash cans. I was at the peak of a panic attack and hyperventilating about the possibility that I might not get an A on the upcoming test. To the point where I was losing feeling in my fingers and the tip of my nose.

In my mind there were two options: an A or abject failure and shame. If it wasn’t an A, I was a failure. There was no consideration of a B+. It was all or nothing.

Classic black and white thinking.

I was first introduced to black & white (or all-or-nothing, or dichotomous) thinking by a therapist when I was in my 30’s. She asked me a few probing questions about my beliefs. At the end of the session, she sent me home with some photocopied pages from a book. I don’t have the pages anymore, but according to the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology, it is defined as:

the tendency to think in terms of polar opposites — that is, in terms of the best and worst — without accepting the possibilities that lie between these two extremes.

With this line of thinking, things are either exactly right or completely wrong. You are a perfect success of a stunning failure. There is no between.

Therapy, time, and my experience with gorgeously imperfect children and the ups and downs of parenting have blunted the sharpness of my black and white thinking. Let me settle into some areas of gray. Not that it was easy.

Then 2020 came along.

One difficult part of black & white thinking is that it requires firm rules or grades. There need to be guard rails so you know if you’ve stepped off the path. Measures that tell you unequivocal success, or what is right.

Some things are obvious, at least in my mind. Wearing a mask around other people…



Deb Knobelman, PhD

Neuroscience. Wall Street. C-Suite. Parent. Recovering Nervous Nelly. https://www.debknobelman.com