"Black and white" thinking is also known in the mental health world as "all-or-nothing" or "polarized" thinking, a type of cognitive distortion. These types of thoughts often trigger feelings of overwhelm or worry. They can even contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. When we see the world through this lens, it can lead to us viewing ourselves and others in low regard, decrease self-esteem, and promote feelings of hopelessness or resentment. By learning to notice these thoughts and challenge their truthfulness, we can greatly improve our moods and outlook.
What does black and white thinking look like?
It can include many forms of absolutes, such as:
It may include thoughts like:
Black and white thinking leaves us with only two options: success or failure, right or wrong, good or bad, and the list can go on and on. Our minds are forced to label things into one of two categories in order to make sense of our world which does not allow for acknowledgment of the complexities of life. Although these thoughts can seem like facts, this type of labeling is not truly reflective of the reality of our situations.
This type of thought pattern is limiting, by disallowing us to see other helpful or more likely alternatives. When we think of things in terms of absolutes, we are ignoring the full picture. Whether we realize it or not, most things fall in-between or outside of the black and white. For example, the people close to us are not "all good" or "all bad." People are complex and flawed. We can care about a person, while disliking certain traits, beliefs, or behaviors of theirs. By challenging black and white thinking, we can foster a happy, healthy relationship with someone who may at times demonstrate behaviors that we do not agree with.
How do you stop this way of black and white thinking?
A good place to start is by recognizing that having a thought does not automatically make that thought true. When you notice an all-or-nothing thought, try coming up with a more helpful thought based in the gray zone. You can do this by identifying times the all-or-nothing thought wasn't true, find facts that contradict it, or identify positives about your situation.
If you're struggling to challenge your black and white thoughts, it can also be helpful to discuss them with someone you trust. Asking people who care about us for their help finding the gray area, can often help us to see the more positive realities of our current situation. Like any new skill, the more you practice, the easier it will become.
Torie Cueto, LMFT is a licensed therapist in San Diego, California. Torie provides in-person therapy for adults and teens in San Diego and online video therapy for adults located throughout California.