I spent a good deal of my younger life using either/or thinking in order to contain anxiety. All it really did was make things worse. It’s one way that biases such as homophobia, racism, sexism, and other types of oppression can take root and be hard to shake. Either/or thinking isn’t the only issue here, but it’s one way in.
I am a Nun-son. That’s what the other kids sometimes said growing up because my mother was a former Nun.
And you’d think that her being a nun would make her the most religious person in our family, but by the time I hit my early teenage years I had realized how helpful religiosity could be in managing all the anxiety about puberty.
I was the sixth-grade kid that made the other kids give me 10 cents every time they used a curse word—and I promptly would put that in the poor box. I was going to confession weekly at times. In my either/or way of thinking, there were rights and there were wrongs and if you strayed too far into the wrong, I was going to hell. And I wanted to avoid that at all costs.
So either/or, black and white, all or nothing thinking was, to me, the most effective means of keeping my life on track. Here’s the thing, though, when it came to religion, I knew and believed all of the rules of Catholicism, but I never took in any of the spirituality.
How an Ideologue [Me] Caused Harm
Still it made sense that I would go to THE Catholic University of America in DC.
Now I arrived there fully armed with extremely logical understandings of why I should and shouldn’t do things, and more importantly why you shouldn’t do most of the things you wanted to do.
Most of these things revolved around sex.
I had a well-formed argument against abortion—which all 18-year-old boys have a right to have (please note the sarcasm if you’re just reading and not watching the video). I understood the reasons why no one should have sex before they were married. All that stuff.
Early on in school I became friends with Henry. We were in the same dorm, had friends in similar circles. And by Sophomore year we decided to room together. This was great. And I also thought that having him as a friend showed how “progressive” I was because Henry was gay.
Since Henry came out early first year he became very active in the LGBT group on campus. And he was very involved in AIDS activism—this was the mid-90s.
It was October and we were in our dorm room on a Saturday. It was fairly dark in the room—it was one of the few room disagreements we had. I always wanted the shades open as early as possible in the morning. But all the regular roommate stuff like keeping the sink clean, whose using whose space wasn’t something we argued about that often.
It was a nice fall day in DC and I didn’t have many plans, but Henry said, almost as an aside, that he wanted to give me a purple ribbon for National Coming Out Day to wear as support. As an ally. And he said it so matter of fact-ly and I realized that I was shocked—clearly Henry and I had never had the conversation. So I took a moment and said, “Henry, I love you very much, but I totally disagree with your lifestyle.”
From my either/or way of thinking, I considered this to be tolerance.
His face moved from, what happens when you think you’re having a normal conversation and suddenly an elephant takes a shit on you. He grabbed his coat really forcefully and just left the room. I was stunned. I called another friend who thought like I did and had all my beliefs and actions confirmed and waiting for him to come back, which he did and he said, “We have to talk.”
Henry said, “I am trying to understand why you would want to be my friend, be my roommate, when you think what you do?” He reminded me of an incident that had happened earlier that year.
Henry had put up this sticker on our door that said, “Years from now, your children will ask what YOU did to end AIDS” and a hate group on campus had defaced it. This was a horrible time, particularly for Henry. He was angry, scared. It was really terrible. And in this moment he was remembering how supportive I was of him during that time. And he couldn’t put together my actions then and what I had said today and believed all along.
We didn’t come to any conclusion in that moment, but for some reason he didn’t ask to change rooms or anything like that.
Well, this moment stayed with me and continued to eat at me. It really held up this mirror to a version of myself that I didn’t want to look at. That my own beliefs that I had been using to manage my own anxiety may actively cause harm to people I cared about.
I couldn’t take that in.
Change WILL Feel Uncomfortable
And as I kept going along my life at THE Catholic University of America what I was most scared of as a younger teenager began happening more and more. I kept making exceptions to all the rules I had been following. This happened with gay friends, but also friends who had abortions, people who got divorced and remarried. Rules that really only made sense from an abstract point of view.
And relationships began to matter more than the rules.
Years later I was at Henry’s wedding—I believe I was the only alum from Catholic U there. His mom came up to me—herself an ex-nun, something he and I had bonded over early on—and I remember she said to me, “I have six sons and all of them are now married—and I finally have my first son-in-law!”
And it brought me right back to that October Sophomore year: Watching this ex-nun find such joy in that, I was just so glad that Henry hadn’t kicked me out of his life—something I would fully support anyone doing these days: people who are oppressed shouldn’t be made to educate or live with someone who said what I did. I also know that I could easily have become one of those guys who write hate speech on people’s doors—or worse.
I was so worried for so long that “making exceptions” for my values would mean I was living some kind of arbitrary existence. When I realized that people are more important than abstract values, then life is actually the exception, and those values change. It was uncomfortable, but that’s how change happens.
I could change–and give myself more freedom too.
I often work with people who have firmly held beliefs that they’ve never allowed themselves to question. Often through our work together we discover that those beliefs aren’t about their value system, but as a way to contain fears and anxiety. But they also create a ton of shame and can be seen in really negative behavior towards others. Re-examining this either/or thinking and beliefs gives you More space. Less shame.
And helped make me more human.
If you’d like to talk further about pushing past your own either/or way of thinking, please contact me to schedule a free 15/20 minute consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.