What is Black and White Thinking and 9 Ways to Stop it in it’s Tracks

What is black and white thinking?

Black and white thinking, also known as all or nothing thinking, polarized thinking, or dichotomous thinking is a common cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are negative thought patterns that aren’t based on fact. They are extremely common in people who struggle with their mental health, especially borderline personality disorder, depression, and anxiety. Since cognitive distortions are your minds way of convincing you that things are worse than they actually are, they often lead to you feeling worse about yourself.

Black and white thinking is a really common cognitive distortion that I see with a lot of my clients. It is a way of thinking in extremes. It can lead to increased anxiety and depression and some research has also linked it to negative perfectionism. It’s words like always, never, everyone, everything, all the time, etc…These black or white terms leave little room for alternative perspectives that may be more rooted in reality.

What causes black and white thinking?

Black and white thinking can arise from various factors, and is often associated with cognitive distortions that result from our life experiences. While the below factors can contribute to the development of black and white thinking, it’s important to note that it is a learned thought pattern, that can be changed with awareness and effort. Some of the most common causes of black and white thinking include:

Early Life Experiences:

Childhood experiences can play a significant role in shaping our cognitive patterns. If you grew up in an environment where you were exposed to extreme beliefs or your parents had a lot of rigid rules, you might have learned to internalize black or white thinking as a way to better understand the world.

Traumatic Events:

Experiencing traumatic events can lead to a need for certainty and control as a coping mechanism. Black and white thinking can provide a sense of structure and order to help ground you.

Family and Cultural Influences:

The beliefs and values passed down by family members or cultural norms can shape your thought patterns. If you were raised in an environment that encourages dichotomous thinking, you are more likely to have this mindset.

Fear of Ambiguity:

Some individuals find ambiguity and uncertainty distressing, leading them to seek clarity and simplicity by adopting black and white thinking.

Low Self-Esteem:

People with low self-esteem may be more prone to black and white thinking, as they might see themselves as either entirely worthy or completely worthless.

Lack of Coping Skills:

When faced with challenging situations, individuals with limited coping skills might default to black and white thinking as a way to simplify challenging problems.

Survival instinct:

As a survival instinct, our brains have learned to naturally sort things into categories. From an evolutionary standpoint, we constantly need to sort things into categories to keep ourselves safe. In the modern world, when we struggle with mental health issues or are chronically stressed and anxious, those survival instincts are not needed in the same way but our mind and body find new ways to use them that lead to more anxiety. While we may not be in a life or death situation, our brain approaches the situation like it is. 

Mental health disorders:

Mental health conditions like personality disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and eating disorders can all lead to an increase in black and white thinking and other cognitive distortions.

What are some examples of black and white thinking?

Once you learn about black and white thinking, black and white terms become pretty easy to spot.These absolute terms include words like, always, never, good, bad, right, wrong. everything, all the time, etc.. and can negatively impacting feelings of self-worth and self-esteem along with a multitude of other negative mental health outcomes. Here are some examples of how all or nothing thinking can show up in different areas of your life.

Relationships: “If my partner doesn’t always agree with me, they must not love me at all.”

Academics: “If I don’t get an A on this test, I’m a complete failure.”

Appearance: “I gained a little weight, so now I’m unattractive and nobody will find me appealing.”

Career: “If I don’t get this promotion, my entire career is doomed.”

Self-Identity: “If I make a mistake, I’m a complete failure.”

Parenting: “I’m a bad parent because I’m going on a trip and not bringing my child.”

Success: “If I’m not the best at something, I’m a failure.”

Friendships: “If my friend cancels plans, they must not want to hang out with me.”

Trust: “Once someone has broken my trust, I can never trust them again, no matter what.”

Health: “If I can’t follow my diet perfectly, there’s no point in trying to be healthy.”

What are some signs of black and white thinking

When hoping to stop black and white thinking, it’s most important to increase your awareness of your thought patterns and the way you perceive yourself and the world. Below are some common signs of black and white thought patterns.

Extreme Language: Using words like always, never, completely, right or wrong to describe situations, people, or events. For example, “I always mess things up” or “They never understand me.”

Absolute Statements: Seeing situations as either good or bad, right or wrong, with no room for anything in between. There is no space for nuance or gray area.

Overgeneralization: Drawing conclusions based on a single event or a few isolated incidents. For example, if one thing goes wrong, assuming that everything in life is terrible.

Negative Self-Talk: Being highly critical of yourself without considering any positive qualities or achievements. I wrote a whole blog post on how to challenge negative self-talk that you can read if you want to learn more.

Perfectionism: Believing that things must be perfect, and any small mistake is a complete failure.

Difficulty compromising: Being unable to find common ground or reach agreements because of a rigid belief in your own point of view

Unrealistic Expectations: Setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and others, leading to constant disappointment and dissatisfaction.

Polarized Viewpoints: Viewing situations as all good or all bad, without acknowledging that most things have both positive and negative aspects.

Difficulty Handling Ambiguity: Struggling to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity, seeking clear-cut answers even in situations where they might not exist.

Splitting: A defense mechanism in which you tend to view people, situations or even yourself in an all or nothing way.

9 ways to overcome black and white thinking

Notice how often you use extreme language about yourself and others

This is probably the hardest part of overcoming black and white thinking because it involves becoming aware of the language you use with yourself. For many of my clients, they aren’t aware how often they’re even engaging in black and white thinking. Take a minute to think about what kind of language you use with yourself. Do you use phrases like, “I always fail” or “ I never take time for myself.”? If you are still struggling to identify your dichotomous thinking, it can be helpful to journal, have a friend or loved one call you out when they hear it, or work with a therapist to help.

Challenging negative thoughts

While we may not be able to control our first thought, we can control the next thought. Once you have learned to recognize negative thoughts as they arise. You can use this awareness to identify any negative thought patterns or black and white thinking and start to challenge your negative self-talk in the moment.

Often times negative thoughts are linked to irrational belief systems. When you notice a negative thought popping up, one of my favorite practices is to fill out this cognitive behavioral therapy worksheet for it. In the worksheet you explore your negative thought and work towards identifying a new more positive realistic thought. I dive more into how to do this in the worksheet, so make sure to get your free download of it if you’re interested. I also wrote a whole blog post on how to stop negative self-talk if you want to learn more.

Find the grey area

Finding the grey area in black and white thinking is one of the most important tools for challenging this cognitive distortion. The grey are is the middle ground in between the all or nothing thought that you’re expressing. For example if you say, “you never pay attention to me,” or “you always pay attention to me.” The middle ground would be, you sometimes pay attention to me. Being mindful of how you use your words is super important when it comes to changing black and white thinking.

Finding the grey area also includes acknowledging that most situations and issues have multiple factors and complexities. Avoid oversimplifying by considering different perspectives. If you really struggle with this, you can ask someone who’s opinion you trust to share their thoughts about a situation.

Below, I’ve included some other examples to help you find the middle ground. When you shift from less extreme words to more neutral words like this, you practice self-compassion and are more likely to have a realistic view of yourself and the world around you.

  • “I made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. Everyone makes mistakes, and I can learn from this experience.”
  • “I disagree with some aspects of my friend’s opinion, but I can understand where they’re coming from and respect their right to have a different viewpoint.”
  • “I have strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else. I may not excel in everything, but I have valuable skills in certain areas.”
  • “My partner has both positive and negative qualities, just like I do. It’s normal for us to have our differences, and we can work through them together.”
  • “Life is full of uncertainties, and it’s okay not to have all the answers. I’ll do my best with the information I have and can be flexible as needed.”
  • “This job has its challenges, but it also provides valuable learning opportunities and a chance to grow professionally.”
  • “No one is perfect, including me. I’m learning to be compassionate with myself and others when we don’t reach my expectations.”
  • “I can appreciate and respect someone’s achievements while also acknowledging that they have their struggles and imperfections.”

Avoid speaking in absolutes

This is one of my favorite strategies when it comes to shifting black and white thinking. If you find yourself using extreme language like always, never, everyone, or no one, try swapping out those words for more moderate language. For example instead of always, you could say most of the time or frequently. Instead of never, you would say rarely.

Avoiding speaking in absolutes involves being mindful of your language and thought patterns. If you notice yourself about to use a black or white term, swap it with some of the qualifying language below.

  • Generally
  • Usually
  • Typically
  • In most cases
  • Often
  • Likely
  • Sometimes

Practice self-compassion and acceptance

I feel like a broken record when talking about strategies that are helpful because they all tend to have some overlap. While that may be a little annoying, it’s actually amazing, because it means if you start practicing these strategies you can see some pretty major shifts across a lot of different challenge areas. Self-compassion and self-acceptance are two tools that will pay massive dividends if you start regularly incorporating them.

Some amazing ways to practice self-compassion when it comes to dichotomous thinking are:

  1. Honor all your thoughts, feelings and needs without judgment. Validate whatever emotion you are experiencing and create space for you to feel what you need.
  2. Embrace your imperfections: Understand that nobody is perfect, and that’s okay. Practice welcoming and accepting your flaws even if you don’t love all the parts of yourself.
  3. Celebrate your strengths: Recognize your unique qualities, talents, and achievements. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small they may seem.
  4. Set realistic expectations: Avoid setting overly high standards for yourself. Be realistic about what you can achieve and understand that it’s okay to make mistakes or have setbacks.
  5. Focus on progress, not perfection: Shift your mindset to focusing on making progress and learning from your experiences. Every step, no matter how small, is an accomplishment worth acknowledging.
  6. Let go of comparisons: As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Comparing yourself to others can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Instead bring your attention back to yourself and focus on your own goals and values.

Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is an amazing way to tune into your thoughts, and feelings in a non judgmental way. Creating a mindfulness practice allows you to increase your awareness around the types of thought patterns that are going on in your brain. Mindfulness can feel really intimidating to a lot of people but there are so many amazing benefits. I promise if you take the time to work on this, you will see so many benefits.

Acknowledge wide range of life’s emotions

This idea is rooted in acceptance commitment therapy. It’s the idea that life is not meant to be perfect and thinking so keeps you feeling stuck and miserable. When we allow ourselves to feel both positive and negative things at the same time we allow ourselves to be human and honor all of our emotions exactly as they are. Life is never all good or all bad, it is a mixture of both. Creating space for that understanding, by accepting that good and bad can coexist can create a lot more freedom and peace.

Ask yourself is it helpful, is it true, is it kind?

In this exercise, run through these questions. Unless the answer is ‘yes’ to all three, chances are reframing your thoughts would be helpful. If you need help with reframing thoughts, the worksheet I mentioned above is an amazing free resource to help you do that.

Talk with a mental health professional

I hope you found this helpful and learned some new strategies to help you on your mental health journey. As a licensed therapist for over a decade, I firmly believe in the importance of working with a mental health professional. If you struggle with your mental health and are looking to make some changes, finding a mental health professional who you like and trust is a great way to improve your emotional health and well being. If you’re interested in working with me and live in the state of California, I offer virtual sessions throughout the state.

Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as legal, financial, or medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional advice of your own attorney, accountant, physician, or financial advisor. Always check with your own physician, attorney, financial advisor, accountant, or other business or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.

That's So Well Therapist Arielle

It's me, Arielle!

Holistic Therapist, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Yoga Instructor in Elk Grove, California.

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