Finding the Goldilocks Zone: An Antidote to Black-and-White Thinking

Finding the Goldilocks Zone: An Antidote to Black-and-White Thinking

by Jeremy Shapiro
In the spirit of Goldilocks, clinicians can help clients find their way to thinking styles that are “just right.”


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Everyone likes the idea of therapy being strengths-based, but disentangling clients’ strengths from their problems can be a challenging task (the same might be said of our own strengths and weaknesses as therapists). The root of this issue is that personality-based styles of thinking, feeling, and behaving typically work well in some situations but not others.

At the end of our first year of graduate school, my classmates and I met individually with our advisors to hear a summary of the faculty’s feedback about our progress. You can imagine the tension. My advisor, with a reassuring tone, said the feedback was organized in terms of strengths and weaknesses, with all students receiving some of each. Then he provided an insightful description of my strengths in the areas of learning, thinking, and interacting with others. After a pause, probably with a tremor in my voice, I asked to hear the weaknesses. He said, “Oh—the same things.” “What?” “Your weaknesses are just your strengths in situations where they don’t work.”

I don’t think this maxim is true all the time, but it seems true a lot. The idea that personality-related styles of functioning have advantages and disadvantages can help clients disentangle what they want to keep from what they want to modify.

Adaptive Elements within Dysfunction

In my experience, many faulty cognitions underlying psychological dysfunctional seem to include a valid point—an insight about life or a strategy for achieving safety or success. For example:

  • One anxious client said: “There’s so much that could go wrong, and I feel like if I relax and let my guard down, something will sneak up on me.”
  • A verbally aggressive client offered: “It’s tough out there, and you have to establish dominance to succeed. We’re not going to get very far in this therapy if you think I should let people push me around.”
  • A client with an overspending problem lamented: “Life is short, and I don’t want to be a cheapskate who obsesses about every penny I spend.”

many faulty cognitions underlying psychological dysfunctional seem to include a valid point—an insight about life or a strategy for achieving safety or success
These clients all had valid points, but they had taken their points so far that potential strengths became unobtainable. The culprit is black-and-white thinking, which ignores moderate options and presents spurious choices between extreme alternatives. The above clients benefited from discovering that:

  • It is possible to be careful and prudent without being chronically anxious.
  • It is possible to be non-aggressive without letting people push us around.
  • It is possible to manage money responsibly without obsessing about every penny.

This post is about a technique for helping clients develop gray-area cognitions, which enable them to moderate extreme versions of their styles of functioning and turn weaknesses into strengths. I developed the technique recently, but its roots go back 2,500 years.

Finding the Middle Way

In ancient times, several philosophers and religious leaders, living in separate cultures and with no knowledge of each other, developed the idea that optimal human functioning usually consists of a moderate balance between opposite extremes. In ancient Greece, Aristotle coined the term Golden Mean to summarize this idea; in India, Buddha used the term Middle Way; and in China, Confucius espoused his Doctrine of the Mean. These are different words for the same idea: skillful, effective functioning is generally moderate and balanced, and maladaptive behavior typically involves extremes, including opposite extremes.

The Goldilocks Principle got its name from a children’s story in which the protagonist noticed that qualities lying midway between two opposite extremes (e.g., hot and cold, hard and soft) can be pleasant, satisfying, and “just right.” Applications of this versatile principle appear in the seemingly disparate domains of developmental psychology, economics, communication science, medicine, and astrobiology.

Aaron Beck and others taught us that it is practically impossible to function effectively with a black-and-white map of a complicated, nuanced world. This is a cognitive-clinical issue that affects many clients across diverse diagnoses, so if you like the formulation presented here, you will be able to use it in much of your work.

Aristotle taught that moderation is the key to virtue. For instance, he conceptualized courage as the adaptive midpoint between the maladaptive extremes of cowardice and recklessness. He reasoned that it is bad to be a coward, dominated by fear, and it is also bad to be reckless, oblivious to fear; the virtuous way in the middle is courage. Aristotle offered similar analyses of other virtues that integrate elements from opposite ends of some spectrum.

Jumping ahead to the present, there are many examples of similar analyses in psychotherapy. For instance, it is maladaptive to be aggressive and violent, treating others as if their needs don’t count, and it is maladaptive to be passive and submissive, allowing others to treat us as if our needs don’t count. The virtuous way in the middle is assertiveness—the adaptive midpoint between these two extremes. One of the central strategies of Dialectical Behavior Therapy is to help clients integrate opposite forms of value and personal attributes into adaptive syntheses.

Replacing Binaries with Spectrums

In my psychotherapy practice, I have found that 10-point scales—already familiar to most clients— provide handy, effective tools for conceptualizing personal issues and planning changes. In particular, these scales address black-and-white or dichotomous thinking by presenting the spectrum of options that generally lie in between simple, extreme categories.1

I have found it useful to draw these scales on paper or computer screens, thus creating diagrams that supplement verbal reasoning with visual-spatial information. Psychotherapy tends to be dependent on words, but people think visually, too, so diagrams provide an important avenue of cognition and communication.2 Clients can also track their progress by graphing changes on these scales as they progress through therapy.

Opposite extremes and moderate middles can be represented with numbers and words on scales that describe dimensions of emotion, thought, behavior, and personality. For example, here are diagrams of the personality-related dimensions we have mentioned so far:

Cowardly                                     Courageous                                       Reckless

Overanxious                                  Prudent                                          Careless

Passive                                         Assertive                                      Aggressive

Miserly                                           Thrifty                                    Overspending

Psychotherapeutic diagrams: Pathways, spectrums, feedback loops, and the search for balance.

Finding Goldilocks: A guide for creating balance in personal change, relationships, and politics.  


Here is a diagram with a little more detail:

Hopeless           Pessimistic           Realistic           Optimistic           Pollyannish

Spending a session on this type of work can yield diagrams like the following:

Openness about Emotion

Closed Off            Reserved         Selectively Open      Very Open      Attention Whore

Hard to Get to Know                                                    Too Much Information

Emotionally Alone                Sharing Important Things with Important People          Spilling Guts to Anyone

Going Over Past Mistakes

Obsess about Mistakes         Figure Out What Went Wrong          Forget about Mistakes

Beat Myself Up                 Learn from Mistakes                   Ignore Mistakes

Feel Doomed by Mistakes            Plan How to Do Better           Pretend They Didn’t Happen

Getting Help from Other People

No Help Ever          Last Resort            When Needed        More than Needed        Constantly

Irrationally Independent.               Trying, Then Getting Help                Lazy, Dependent

Living with One Arm Tied                  Using Resources Skillfully                               Can’t Do Anything
Behind Back                                                                                                              On Own         

As these examples illustrate, when styles of functioning are conceptualized on continuums, both sides involve advantages, both involve disadvantages, and the most adaptive combinations are located in the middle—the Goldilocks Zone. Many mental health problems can be conceptualized as points close to the poles of scales like these, and effective styles can usually be pictured in the mid-ranges. Therapy using these scales can provide an antidote to black-and-white thinking.

The Procedure with Clients

I don’t think I’ve ever had two clients who constructed the exact same scale. We develop these diagrams collaboratively, mostly using the Socratic method. Sometimes I suggest words or phrases, and the client decides whether to use them.

The question I ask myself internally is: On what dimension of functioning does the client’s issue lie? The answer generally takes shape as we go through the following steps.
  • (1) Write words describing the client’s problematic way of functioning under the 8-10 points of the scale. For example: perfectionistic, rebellious, undisciplined.
  • (2) Write words describing the opposite style of functioning under the 1-3 points. This usually represents the style that the client most fears, looks down on, and wants to avoid. For example, a perfectionistic client might fear becoming a sloppy slacker; a rebellious client might look down on people who are mindlessly obedient; and an undisciplined client might be repelled by a workaholic lifestyle. These feared styles are generally maladaptive in ways precisely opposite the presenting problems.
  • (3) Write words describing the moderate middle under the 5-6 points of the scale. (5.5 is the midpoint.) This style represents a balance or synthesis that combines elements from both ends of the spectrum. For our examples, the words conscientious, cooperative, and work-life balance represent moderate syntheses.
  • (4) It is also useful to describe the two intermediate regions between the midpoint and poles. These words represent styles that are distinctive and effective, though not necessarily optimal.
  • (5) Ask the client to indicate their self-perceived location on the scale. Most clients are precise about this and give answers in the form of fractions or decimals. These numbers summarize a lot of information in a very succinct way.
  • (6) Finally, there is the goal-setting question: Where does the client want to be? The desired location is almost always between the client’s current position and the mid-point. Usually the distance is only about 2 scale-points—and the goals of therapy seem quite attainable.
Different people need to move in different directions to reach the adaptive middle, depending on where they start out. For example, highly self-critical people need to become easier on themselves, and conceited people need to become harder on themselves. Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the two sides of these spectrums helps clients form a clear picture of the changes they want to achieve.

Not a Point but a Range

Adaptive functioning does not come in only one form. There are ranges of effective styles on most personality-related dimensions. In terms of our scales, this means that effective functioning is not limited to a tight band between 5 and 6, but extends outward to a broader range, such as 4 to 7, or even 3 to 8. In our search for adaptive moderation, we are not looking for a Goldilocks Point but a Goldilocks Zone (3,4).

there are ranges of effective styles on most personality-related dimensions
In working with clients, I have found that the most effective way of working on personal change is not trying to become a different kind of person—not trying to move to the opposite end of the continuum. Clients don’t even need to move to the midpoint; they can stay on their preferred side and develop a successful style that fits their existing personality and preferences. Realistic, effective goals are usually located in the part of the Goldilocks Zone that is closest to the person’s starting point.

Clients usually like the idea that they can achieve major gains by making small to medium-sized changes in the way they operate. They don’t need to move from a 9 to a 2, or even to a 5.5. If they move from a 9 to a 7, they keep their basic style but moderate it enough to avoid most of its disadvantages and gain many of the benefits on the other side of the spectrum.

Once you get the hang of this method, I think you will find it applicable to a wide variety of mental health symptoms, problems in living, and personal dilemmas, most of which were not mentioned in this post. It is also useful in couples counseling, because it generally reveals to partners that their differences are matters of degree, not categorical matters of principle. In a multitude of ways, clients can turn dysfunctional styles into strengths by moderating them, so their ways of functioning move into the Goldilocks Zone. 

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Jeremy Shapiro Jeremy Shapiro, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty member of the Psychological Sciences Department of Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Shapiro has worked as a therapist, researcher, and trainer in university, hospital, community mental health, private practice, and corporate settings. His books include, Psychotherapeutic Diagrams: Pathways, Spectrums, Feedback Loops, and the Search for Balance (for therapists), Finding Goldilocks: A Guide for Creating Balance in Personal Change, Relationships, and Politics (for everyone), and Child and Adolescent Therapy: Science and Art (a graduate school textbook). From the beginning, the focus of Dr. Shapiro’s career has been integrating scientific research with immersive therapy experience to construct accurate, deep-level understandings of human problems and their solutions.