Black and White Thinking

Written by Terrah Hancock

When I was about ten years old, a child psychologist asked me once, “Have you ever heard the word ‘scapegoat’?”

“No,” I responded, arms crossed, not giving anything away.

“A scapegoat is one member of a family who is blamed for things, picked on, and constantly put down. It seems like the scapegoat is always in trouble and is never understood. Does that sound a little like what you experience at home with your family?”

“No,” I said, stoic. I knew not to tell anyone what had happened. 

The whole drive home, as my mom questioned me about what I told the therapist, I wondered about that word. If I’m the scapegoat, and that’s bad, and my therapist knows it’s bad, then why doesn’t she stop it? It must not be bad enough. Maybe I’m not worth it. I decided that my therapist must not know what she’s talking about, or else she would fix it.

Gram explained it to me once. “Well, honey, you’re the black sheep in the family. Every family has one, and you’re it. I was it in my family, and you’re it now. That’s why you’re my favorite,” she winked. “I know it’s hard, but it’s just the way it is.” Although Gram never spelled out what it meant to be a black sheep, I understood her words. As a black sheep, I could never belong.

I was bad, and they were good. I was wrong, and they were right. They were white sheep and all together; I was a black sheep and all alone. 

Recently, I plopped down on my new therapist’s cozy couch and blurted out, “Fransisco, and I got into a loud argument, so I transferred 50 percent of all our money into my own accounts. I know he’ll divorce me.”

She hadn’t even gotten to her chair yet. “That sounds extreme,” she said while settling in.

“God damn it! I’m thinking in black and white again, aren’t I?” 

“Yes, which is to be expected, considering the extreme traumas you’ve lived through. It’s a very normal trauma response.” She sank deeper in her chair, modeling a deep breath for me to take. “All you can do is notice it, identify that it’s your ‘old stuff,’ and think about it as you are now. Now, you’re a successful forty-year-old executive, a loving mother, and a dedicated wife. You see the grey in life now.”

“God! It’s so hard to remember that when something goes wrong. It’s like my heart starts pumping, and my brain just turns off.”

“Of course it does. When you sense danger—in this instance, Fransisco yelling—your thinking brain turns off, and what we therapists call your ‘reptile brain’ lights up, moving you into action.” Nancy continued by explaining extreme, black-and-white thinking. “Okay, you like to hike. Picture that you’re walking from a trailhead to the mountain, and there’s a long field of tall grass in between. You have to create a path for yourself, crunching each piece of tall grass down. It’s hard work to get through it all,” she explained. “Now. . . do you make a new path when you come back down the mountain?”

“No. Oh. I get it.” I began to understand.

“Right, you use the path you already started, and when you go hiking next time, you take the path you already created. That’s what happens with neurotransmitters. They create a pathway in your brain, and then you keep using it, which makes the path stronger and stronger. You can create a new path, but it takes time, just like it did when you walked through the tall grass.”

“Am I ever going to develop a new path?” I asked with a pouty huff.

“Yes, but it’s hard to do.” 

Terrah Hancock was born in a trailer to an alcoholic, abusive rodeo cowboy and a southern Christian mother who spoke in tongues. She developed self-reliance, strength, and resilience early in life to survive severe child abuse. Terrah has done extensive study of eating disorders, Bipolar Disorder, and Complex PTSD in adult survivors of child abuse. She is an outspoken voice for ending child abuse, rape, and any stigmas associated with mental health therapy or illness.

In her raw and poignant memoir, It Never Took (excerpted here from Chapter 38), Terrah tells frank, compelling stories about her life and experiences in therapy. She regularly speaks and consults with other survivors about Complex PTSD, helping them . . .

  • commit to the importance of therapy,
  • be open-minded about medication,
  • deal with thoughts of suicide, and
  • overcome the fear of changing therapists.
Written by Terrah Hancock