Why Concrete Thinking May Be Holding You Back

By Joy Youell

Updated December 02, 2019

Reviewer Christy B.

Some people see the world in black and white. If you're struggling with an issue, this kind of thinking can keep you from making a decision or moving forward. Although there are times when concrete thinking is highly effective, there are other times when it can be a barrier to mental wellness. Read on to learn about ways that concrete thinking may be holding you back and how to push beyond your limitations.

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Concrete thinking can help someone make decisions with efficiency, and it can cut through the noise around an issue to help you find solutions. Sometimes, however, it can be perceived as insensitive. In highly emotional or complex situations, there is often more than one perspective or solution. While there is no right or wrong way of thinking, gaining a better understanding of your tendencies and thought patterns can help you become more empathetic and can enhance your relationships.

What Is Concrete Thinking?

Concrete thinking is a highly literally way of processing information. People who tend to think concretely may struggle with abstract thought or alternative ideas. This can make them seem stubborn or inflexible. In extreme cases, it can impair their ability to make decisions or problem-solve effectively.

For example, consider someone who normally cleans their home every Thursday, never swaying from this routine. What happens if there's an emergency on a Thursday? This person may struggle to do anything else until their house is clean, even if the emergency needs their immediate attention.

Another example is an employee who can complete a task but struggles with the theories behind their work. For someone who thinks in a concrete way, abstract ideas or bases for actions may feel inaccessible. Abstract analysis typically forms the basis of higher thought. Someone who struggles with this may misunderstand the policies behind procedures.

A person who thinks concretely tends to think in only black and white. It's hard for them to understand or even acknowledge grey areas in a situation. This approach can be perceived as dogmatic and tends to negatively influence relationships because it makes compromise challenging. If someone only sees one way to complete a task, they may struggle when a friend or coworker suggests an alternative path to success. The relationship can suffer if the concrete thinker refuses to consider other points of view.


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Abstract vs. Concrete Thinking

The opposite of concrete thinking is abstract thinking. Unlike concrete thinkers, people who can think abstractly have a strong ability to process theories and imagine things that are not physically present. They may be better able to understand the theories behind actions, or they may be more artistic and creative than concrete thinkers.

Abstract thinkers utilize this way of thinking to solve problems throughout their lives. Because they may be able to use their imaginations more than concrete thinkers, people who think abstractly may show empathy more easily. In general, they may more easily imagine how someone feels in a given situation, which has a positive impact on their relationships, whereas concrete thinkers may find this difficult.

Just as the world is not black and white, our ways of thinking are seldom entirely abstract or entirely concrete. More likely, we experience a spectrum of thought that varies in different settings. Some people tend to be more concrete thinkers, while others are more abstract. Depending on the situation, most people will fall somewhere in the middle. The way we process our thoughts is a mixture of biology, genetics, and life experiences, but ultimately, each person finds a way to process their thoughts in the way that works best for them.

Concrete Operational Thinking

Most people can think concretely. Between the ages of seven and eleven, concrete operational thinking develops. Around this time, children learn how to think and perform mental operations using concrete thought. They begin to understand that an object is the same object in many forms, even if it's cut in half or in quarters. This way of thinking is important for mental development and can assist in problem solving, but it can also be limiting in some situations.

Is My Way of Thinking Holding Me Back?

If your thought process is primarily concrete, you may see the ways that it holds you back. If you think too concretely, you may not be able to understand how things could be different or become upset if things do not go exactly as planned. For you, it may be hard to understand that two people can achieve the same outcome, even if they go down two very different paths.

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On the other hand, if you think too abstractly, you may be holding yourself back as well. If you're only theorizing about how things can be different without taking action, you won't be able to accomplish anything. If you're in your head too much, your thoughts become your only reality and can hinder any actual change. The following tools will show you how you can shift your thought patterns, so you can live a more fulfilling life.

Challenge Yourself

Instead of doing things the way you've always done them, try shaking it up a bit. Work to understand the deeper meaning behind why something is the way it is. With a new perspective, you may be able to think about easier or more productive ways to accomplish an end goal. If you find someone doing something in a way that's different than your approach, think about why they are doing it that way. What changes could you make to improve your process based on the way they do things?

Discuss with Your Loved Ones

Concrete thinking may affect your relationships at times. If this is something you truly wish to change, talk about it with the people you love and trust. Ask them to give you a social cue when you're thinking too concretely and are not budging on an issue. See if they're willing to nudge you along gently and to challenge you to think outside of the box. This may not be easy for either of you, so it's important that everyone agrees to practices that can promote growth like being open to constructive criticism.

Read and Learn

Challenge yourself to learn and understand the concepts and theories behind physical actions. These concepts may be difficult to learn at first, but retraining your brain can open you up to new ideas.

Gather with Like-Minded Individuals

You may think that surrounding yourself with people like you could make change more difficult. However, that's not necessarily true if you're in a support group. By understanding that you each think in similar ways, you can help each other see how it may be hindering your lives. Many times, it's helpful to learn by example or to hear about someone else's similar experiences. This may be especially true for concrete thinkers. A support group like this can be a safe place to try out new social skills while also offering a space to vent about what has not worked in the past.

Seek Help

If you find that concrete thinking is negatively affecting your everyday life, it may be time to seek advice from a licensed therapist. Here at BetterHelp, there are thousands of licensed therapists waiting to help you. As part of the signup process, you will be matched with the therapist who fits you and your needs best, and you can meet with them in a private online space. They will be able to assist you in understanding your concrete way of thinking, how it may be affecting your life, and most importantly how you can develop coping skills to be healthier and more productive. Read below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors who have helped people in similar situations.

Counselor Reviews

"I worked with another counselor for over 6 months before working with Arielle Ballard. In one 30 minute session, I got more accomplished in terms of structuring goals, building coping mechanisms, and recognizing thought patterns, than I had in the 6 months working with the other counselor. I'm pleased with my progress and am very greatful to Arielle."

"Renee is quite possibly one of the best therapists I've ever worked with. She has identified things in ways that I haven't thought of, and offers a great perspective and insight on how I can address certain issues in my life. This has been a wonderful experience."

Moving Forward

Most people want to have a productive life full of fun, love and affection. When the way we think is holding us back, it can be frustrating, but concrete thinking doesn't have to be a problem. You can learn to work with this way of thinking, so it helps you be successful instead. A truly fulfilling and productive life is possible-all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.


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