Are you an all-or-nothing kind of person? Do you find yourself flipping back and forth between strong emotions? You may be caught in a cycle of black and white thinking.
Black and White Thinking Explained
The American Psychological Association has a more technical name for this pattern of thought: dichotomous thinking. Professionals also call it polarized thinking. It is considered to be one of the most common cognitive distortions: negatively biased, inaccurate ways of processing the things that happen around us.
People who think this way see the world in extremes. These snap judgements shape their opinions of themselves, others, and everything else. Examples include:
- “I’m the best at public speaking. I don’t need to prepare for this presentation.”
- “Nothing will ever work out for me. I’ll always fall short.”
- “I’d mess that up. There’s no point in trying.”
What makes black and white thinking such a bad thing? The main danger of this thought pattern is its elimination of nuance. Put simply, most life events fall somewhere between good and bad – they’re in that gray area that black-and-white thinkers ignore. When you see things as completely good or totally evil, you miss out on reality. This impacts your mental health, your ability to make decisions, and your relationships.
In Changes That Heal, authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend explain that everything is both good and bad. They assert that our tendency to separate from the bad results in an inability to tolerate the natural ebb and flow of life. Put simply, swinging back and forth between “things are all good” to “things are all bad” keeps us from having a consistent relationship with ourselves, others, and the world at large.
Here are a few more negative outcomes that black and white thinking can create.
- Black-and-white thinkers are rarely content. They expect perfection and quickly change their minds: a recipe for restlessness.
- Mental health problems often occur when one takes everything to the extreme. The constant ups and downs of this cognitive distortion can run a person ragged.
- Important relationships may be challenged by one’s constant pursuit of perfection and ever-moving goalposts. It’s difficult to be your spouse’s hero and nemesis all in one day.
- Trouble at work may be another natural problem created by black and white thinking. Employees who refuse to compromise on business decisions, insist that others’ ideas are terrible, and vacillate between elation and despondence are difficult to work with.
Why do we think in extremes? The jury is out. Most researchers believe that this cognitive distortion emerges in response to trauma in childhood or adulthood. We also know that it is associated with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. This all-or-nothing coping strategy seeks to protect the thinker from future danger or rationalize their decisions. Regardless of why black and white thinking begins, its consequences are dire. Fortunately, people with this predisposition can change their minds for good.
Recognizing Black and White Thinking
The first step to addressing this harmful habit is learning to recognize it. Once you begin to identify these thoughts, you can change them for the better. As you go through the day, be mindful of specific words entering your mind. “Always” and “never” are two telltale signs of black and white thinking. Other keywords include “perfect,” “ruined,” “impossible,” and “disaster” – however, any emotionally charged words may be evidence of an unhealthy mindset.
There are also mental behaviors that you should keep tabs on. For example, mentally shifting a friend or family member from being a “good” person to being the worst is a sign of polarized thinking. Writing yourself off before even attempting a task – “I’m terrible at running, why bother?” – is another symptom. Finally, be wary of labeling certain foods and eating habits as good or bad. Research has identified a relationship between black and white thinking and disordered eating.
Changing Your Mind
Once you know the hallmarks of this cognitive distortion, you’re ready to make a change. Here are a few easy ways to deal with black and white thinking.
Check the Facts
It’s easy to get swept up in an all-or-nothing vision of the future – “If I don’t get into this graduate program, my career is over before it’s even started!” When these anxious thoughts take hold, write out the facts of the situation. There are plenty of things that may happen even if your worst-case scenario becomes reality. You may find a better job, make industry connections, or join a comparable program. You may make the waitlist and be accepted after the fact. These “gray area” nuances can help to keep you sane when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Don’t Tie Your Worth to Your Actions
If your self-image is tied up in your performance at work or school, you’re unlikely to feel confident and self-assured. Instead, you’ll always be stressed and on edge. Instead of dealing with the cognitive dissonance caused by a failed test, remember that your worth is separate from the things that you do.
Check in With Loved Ones
If you’re mired in a relationship conflict, the best thing to do is to speak with the other person. Instead of filling in the blanks for them, ask them how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. They may not be mad at you at all, or they may have a perspective that’s completely different from what you had imagined. Ask several questions to better understand their point of view. With more information, you can make better decisions about how to proceed.
Talk to a Professional
Finally, the best way to overcome negative thoughts is through clinical intervention. A qualified psychotherapist can help you to identify, negate, and replace your polarized thoughts. At Lakeside-Milam, we offer the primary mental health care you need to find peace of mind.
To learn more about our addiction treatment and mental health services, contact our admissions team.