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Black And White Thinking: What It Is And Why It’s Hurting You

Do you ever catch yourself getting trapped between two extremes?

You meet someone you like and get along with. In your mind, this is a good person. But then they do something you don’t like. They flake on you or forget to return a text. Your immediate instinct is to say, “I was wrong. This is a bad person. I don’t want them in my life.”

Or maybe you decide to start working out, so you go all in. You buy new clothes, a swanky gym membership, and stick to your workout plan for a few weeks.

But then you slip, and now you feel like a complete failure. You give up the gym entirely soon after.

We’re all guilty of thinking and acting this way occasionally. Who among us hasn’t crashed and burned on a new diet or written someone off prematurely? But if you catch yourself doing it a lot, you may be struggling with black and white thinking.

What is black and white thinking?

Black and white thinking, also known as splitting or dichotomous thinking, is the tendency to view the world mostly in extremes. It is a type of binary thinking in which you narrow your worldview into either or terms. 

There’s no gray area for you. 

Everything is all or nothing.

Either you’re 100% committed to this diet, or you’re stuffing your face with whatever you can get your hands on. If you mess up and have a cookie? The entire diet is destroyed! Throw it all away. You’ll never be healthy. You can’t do it!

(Sound familiar?)

Either your partner does everything exactly right, or your relationship is doomed forever. You either hit the gym five days a week, or you quit and stay on the couch. Obviously, you’re not committed to fitness and never will be. 

While it might sound a little crazy to read or say out loud, many of us have these exact conversations with ourselves daily.

Examples of Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking is classified as a cognitive distortion by the American Psychological Association. And though most people are guilty of occasionally falling victim to this thought pattern, there are some of us for whom black and white thinking is the norm. 

And that’s not good. 

Here are a few pitfalls of black and white thinking in our daily lives: 

  • Relationships: Someone who engages in black and white thinking may believe that their partner is either perfect or completely flawed. There’s no room for nuance or complexity. People are either all good or all bad. 
  • Politics: People who engage in black and white thinking may view their political party as completely right and the other party as completely wrong. They may struggle to acknowledge any nuance or complexity in political issues because they are so tethered to their identity as a member of that party. 
  • Work: Someone who engages in black and white thinking may believe they are either completely successful or a total failure. They may struggle to see any progress or improvement in their work, instead focusing only on their perceived shortcomings. This might look like overperforming to appear perfect or giving up because they will “never be good enough.”
  • Health and fitness: People who engage in black and white thinking may believe that they are either completely healthy or completely unhealthy. They may struggle to acknowledge that health and wellness exist on a spectrum and that small improvements can have a positive impact. 
  • Self-image: Someone who engages in black and white thinking may believe that they are either completely perfect or completely flawed. They may struggle to accept their positive attributes because they’re hyper-focused on what they could improve. 

When you live like this, it’s hard to see yourself or others in anything but black and white terms.

I am a good person, or I am a total failure who never does anything right. She is a good friend, or she is a flake who doesn’t really care about you.

That guy you went out with didn’t text you back this morning because he’s not actually into you, and you’re probably going to be alone forever. 

Beyond the obvious ways in which this kind of thinking is self-limiting, there’s actually a huge impact on your mental and physical health at play as well. 

What causes black and white thinking?

Black and white thinking may be caused by a variety of factors including but not limited to:

  1. Childhood experiences: Certain childhood experiences can shape our perspectives, and a highly structured or authoritarian environment can predispose us to think in terms of black and white.
  2. Personality traits: Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism, rigidity, or impulsivity, can make it more likely for someone to engage in black and white thinking.
  3. Cognitive biases: Cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias or the halo effect, can influence how someone perceives and interprets information, leading to black and white thinking.
  4. Emotional factors: Strong emotions, such as fear, anger, or anxiety, can make it difficult for someone to see the nuance and instead view situations or people in extreme, absolute terms.
  5. Mental health conditions: Certain mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or bipolar disorder, are associated with black and white thinking.

When you need to make a snap judgment, black and white thinking can be your saving grace. But if it’s a part of your everyday life, there may be consequences that affect your relationships, decisions, and mental health.

How Black and White Thinking Impacts Your Quality of Life

As we just noted, there is a direct link between people who engage in constant black and white thinking and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. It is also extremely common in people who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder.

All-or-nothing ways of thinking illicit strong emotional responses in our bodies, which triggers the fight or flight response. This translates to chronic stress that feeds our depression and anxiety

It’s hard to relax and find peace when you’re constantly cycling through extreme emotional responses to things that don’t require them. 

And since our brains are predisposed to amplifying the negative, living in a headspace that constantly frames things in terms of “worst, never, always, forever, never, every” is doing major harm to our mental health. 

Better Help has a really useful take on this:

Unfortunately, the more someone gives power to these negative thoughts, the more likely they are to notice situations where the negative thoughts are manifested as truth. When we reach this stage of black-and-white thinking, life can become very challenging.

This kind of thing snowballs. For many of us who struggle to escape this thought pattern, it can lead to more drastic coping mechanisms like drug or alcohol abuse. 

My Struggles With Black and White Thinking

This type of negative thought pattern is one I know all too well. I didn’t know there was a name for it, and I was very resistant to getting counseling, so it was something I just tried to work through on my own.

With not much luck, I might add.  

I worked a high-stress job in which feedback was a constant feature. No matter how hard I tried, I could never escape the desire to want to cry whenever someone gave me tips for improvement. It was a visceral reaction that welled up in my throat and stuck itself there for the duration of the meeting. 

And I used it as evidence that I would never be good enough. 

It didn’t matter that in that same meeting. I’d be given examples of things I’d done well or improved upon. The negative feedback was all I heard. If it wasn’t a 100% glowing endorsement, it was an indictment.

The same was true for my dating life. 

I couldn’t just appreciate a good date for what it was. My mind would blow that whole scenario out of proportion. Obviously, this is my person. 

And when my new beau didn’t return a text in a timely manner, I would go into worst-case scenario mode.

I would drive myself crazy with overwhelming thoughts of rejection, fear of getting ghosted, and what that meant for my romantic prospects moving forward.

This meant constantly ping-ponging between emotional extremes. It was exhausting.

These were all warning signs of black and white thinking.

It wasn’t until I finally quit drinking and got the support that I realized most people are not plagued 24-7 by emotionally overreactive thought patterns. 

It doesn’t always feel that way, especially in our chronically online world.

Emotionally charged words like ‘best, worst, never, always, perfect, disaster’ are used constantly in advertisements and headlines to grab our attention and make us feel a certain way. Moral panic and outrage constantly flood our social media accounts.

These words tap into an innate desire to categorize things quickly and react. 

But seeing the world in only absolute terms is unhealthy, and once we notice that we’re guilty of doing it, it’s time to go to work. 

Because the alternative is often desperate attempts to numb it all away, I used to try to quiet the storm with alcohol, and that only made things worse. 

Luckily, there is something we can do about it. 

think about things differently
learning to recognize black and white thinking

How CBT Can Help You Overcome Black and White Thinking

CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, has been shown to be very effective in helping people overcome black and white thinking. It does this by helping people:

  • Identify and challenge negative thoughts
  • Develop more flexible thinking styles
  • Learn healthy coping skills
  • Practice new behaviors

I highly recommend finding a trained therapist to work with one-on-one. As a supplement, or if you can’t afford therapy, there are many resources to help you start on your own.

One I highly recommend is “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David Burns. It has helped me a lot, especially when I lived overseas and didn’t have affordable access to CBT therapy. 

Let’s dive into some questions and strategies you can use to help combat dichotomous thinking in your daily life.

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1. Ask yourself, “Is it true?

You’ll hear this one a lot if you go looking online. A great way to challenge black and white thinking is to catch yourself in the middle of one of these thought patterns and ask yourself, “Is it true?”

Are you really the worst parent in the world? I doubt it. What’s more accurate? “I made a mistake today, and it feels awful, but I know I’ve a loving parent who will do what is necessary to make it right.”

If you catch yourself saying extreme things about yourself or someone else, stop and ask yourself if it’s really true and then allow your brain to explore the more accurate grey, nuanced reality of the situation. 

2. Notice how often you use extreme language about yourself and others.

Be on the lookout for words like:

  • always
  • never
  • worst
  • best
  • perfect
  • every
  • brilliant
  • stupid
  • bad
  • good

You’re trying to catch yourself using polarizing words.

Search for the grayer equivalent. Instead of saying, “I’m so stupid!” change it to, “I make silly mistakes sometimes.” You’re not exhausted; you’re a bit sleepy. You’re not dying, you worked really hard, and now you’re tired. 

This might seem kind of silly to you at first. We often use polarizing terms for comedic effects. But defaulting to the most polarizing, exaggerated version of what you’re trying to say matters. 

From Psych Central:

But again, using dichotomous language boosts dichotomous thinking, and the latter is a type of cognitive distortion that can negatively influence the way you feel about yourself. If you’re dealing with anxiety, casual usage of extremely polar words can lead you to magnify thoughts and events through a distorted lens that can ultimately make you more anxious.

3. Start a journaling practice.

A journaling practice and certain writing activities can be helpful as well. Write down the black and white thought patterns you catch yourself having. Then refute it on paper. Think through it. 

Here’s an example: You frequently think you’ll never be successful. 

Is that really true?

Write out what’s really happening. “I’m struggling with getting started. I don’t know how to do XYZ. If I do some research, I can learn X. Maybe if I reach out to Person Y, I can move past this hurdle.”

Another example might be: “If I’m not eating healthy meals three times per day, my diet has failed.”

That can’t be right. How about this instead, “I ate three doughnuts and don’t feel great right now. It doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t mean my desire to eat better is ruined. I’ll have a healthier dinner and avoid the free doughnuts next Friday.” 

You’re essentially working out on paper the ways your black and white thinking is illogical and then creating a more reasonable counter-narrative. 

This is a very effective and popular tool among therapists who use the cognitive triangle to help change cognitive distortions like this one.

4. Give yourself time.

It takes a long time to automate more reasonable thoughts. And sometimes, it feels kind of silly or annoying to have to interrupt your thoughts and challenge them constantly.

Almost like you don’t know how to function. 

But give it time and again, challenge whatever all-or-nothing beliefs you have about this process as well. Some days you’ll be good and consistent about it. Other days, you won’t.

And those less successful days in no way define you. They aren’t evidence that you can’t do this. 

You’re human. And this is what the human experience is really like. 

Of course, if you are really struggling with black and white thinking, you should seek treatment with a licensed therapist. It can be a sign of a more serious mental health problem. They’ll be able to provide you with a tailored treatment plan. 

And, as always, be kind to yourself. 

For more resources on mental health:

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