How Black-And-White Thinking Can Affect You

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Black-and-white thinking—a common cognitive distortion marked by viewing situations in extremes—is something many of us do.

It can help us simplify and process information as we receive it, allowing for easier understanding and faster decision making. But it can also be a problem when it leads to a negative outlook and prevents us from perceiving certain experiences objectively. Black-and-white thinking can affect your relationships, work, and mental and emotional health; but it is a thought pattern that can also be reframed so that its effects are limited. In this article, we’re going to discuss black-and-white thinking, its potential impacts, and how you can maintain a balanced, nuanced perspective in your life.

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Cognitive distortions can impact your emotions and behaviors

What is black-and-white thinking?

According to the American Psychological Association, black-and-white thinking (sometimes referred to as dichotomous thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) is “the tendency to think in terms of polar opposites—that is, in terms of the best and worst—without accepting the possibilities that lie between these two extremes”. The absolutism involved in black-and-white thinking is typically irrational and often doesn’t take into account the complexity or nuance of a situation. 

Most of us engage in this cognitive distortion occasionally. For example, a small mistake while presenting on a work project might cause you to feel as though the entire presentation went poorly, even though that wasn’t the case. If we engage in black-and-white thinking frequently, it can cause us to develop an overly negative and potentially harmful mindset. This type of thought pattern is thought to be characteristic of many mental health disorders, including anxiety and depressive disorders, borderline personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

The effects of black-and-white thinking

In many circumstances, it’s natural to use black-and-white thinking. Children are often taught to think through concepts like “good and bad” or “big and little”. Thinking categorically makes understanding the world easier. When we use black-and-white thinking too often, however, there may be negative consequences. The following are some of the effects of dichotomous thinking.  

Limiting beliefs

When we begin to look at things in terms of absolutes, it can become easy to talk ourselves out of striving for more or taking the next step in life. Limiting beliefs is a type of defense mechanism we use to keep ourselves safe and avoid potential failures in our careers, relationships, and even hobbies. They typically involve telling ourselves that we cannot do certain things based on our perception of past experiences. But these ideas about our abilities and options in life are usually based on constraining, often-skewed narratives. 

For example, consider a situation in which you’re interested in pursuing a degree in architecture, but you avoid it because you tell yourself that you’re bad at math. While you might not have excelled at math before, there is a chance you could improve enough to be successful as an architect. However, after looking at the situation in terms of “good” or “bad”, you may decide not to pursue what could be a rewarding career because of a limiting belief. Such cognitive distortions can easily be repeated in other aspects of life.  

Relationship conflict

Sometimes, black-and-white thinking may cause us to view the actions and statements of people in our lives in an overly negative light. For example, if your partner asks you to do a specific chore, you may interpret this as a statement about how you don’t do anything around the house, even if that’s not what was intended. These types of misunderstandings can lead to tension and hurt feelings in relationships with family members, friends, and other people in your life. 

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Mental health challenges

Dichotomous thinking has been linked to several different mental health conditions, including personality disorders, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. Because our thoughts and feelings are connected, black-and-white thinking can cause our emotions to exist at extremes as well.

For example, overemphasizing your own negative qualities due to black-and-white thinking can cause you to develop a skewed self-image, potentially leading to low self-esteem and symptoms of anxiety or depression

Compensating through perfectionism

There is a proven connection between perfectionism and black-and-white thinking. All-or-nothing thinking can cause us to imagine everything we do in terms of success or failure. We may, in turn, try to ensure every aspect of an endeavor is completed perfectly or simply avoid undertaking projects altogether. This type of perfectionism can be damaging in the long run. For example, if you’re a student who believes that anything less than an A is a failure, you may cause yourself unnecessary distress and perform worse in school. 

How to avoid black-and-white thinking

While black-and-white thinking can have a substantial impact on our lives, it can also be limited by challenging and reframing our thought patterns. The following are strategies for avoiding the use of black-and-white thinking in your life. 

Challenge your thoughts

As discussed above, our minds often engage in simplifications and distortions that make us believe things that aren’t necessarily true. This can cause us to fixate on negative aspects of situations or interpret outcomes in an all-or-nothing fashion. For example, if you’ve made a mistake at work, you may tell yourself I cannot do anything right. 

When this happens, try to examine the veracity of such statements. You’ll likely find many instances in which they are untrue. In the above example, you can probably list numerous things at which you excel. 

You can challenge dichotomous thoughts that arise out of a variety of circumstances. If you notice that you’re viewing things in extremes, try to find alternative outcomes. Consistently catching these distortions and coming up with proof to the contrary may help you limit black-and-white thinking going forward.

Avoid speaking in absolutes

The way you speak to yourself and others helps shape your perspective on life. So negative, restrictive language can lead to limiting beliefs and an altered perspective on various situations. Researchers have found that negative self-talk can hinder progress toward goal achievement and lead to mental health challenges. Try to eschew the use of absolute words like “never”, “always”, and “every” in favor of more nuanced language. For example, instead of telling someone, “I always struggle to exercise”, try saying, “I’ve sometimes struggled to exercise in the past”. 

Practice gratitude

Studies show that affirmations can reduce the occurrence of negative thoughts. Writing daily in a gratitude journal is a productive way of shifting your overall mindset toward optimism and positivity. To start, you can simply make a list of things you are grateful for at present. Feel free to list as many as you can or jot down a set number each day. 

Talk to a professional

Working with a mental health professional can help you address the emotional effects of black-and-white thinking and develop a more nuanced mindset. A therapist can provide you with tips for limiting negative self-talk and show you how to reframe cognitive distortions. Therapy can also be useful when working through symptoms of mental health concerns that may be related to dichotomous thinking, such as anxiety or depression.  

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Cognitive distortions can impact your emotions and behaviors

How online therapy can help

Online therapy is a proven effective method of providing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a widely utilized modality that helps individuals identify and replace negative thought patterns, such as all-or-nothing thinking, which may be underlying symptoms of depression or other mental health challenges. For instance, one such study concluded that internet-delivered CBT was just as effective as face-to-face CBT for depression and anxiety disorders.

Online therapy can help you recognize and challenge negative thought patterns that may be affecting your mental health. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can address cognitive distortions and their effects remotely, through video calls, voice calls, or in-app messaging. BetterHelp works with thousands of mental health professionals—who have a wide range of specialties—so you’ll have a good chance of matching with someone who can help you reframe unhelpful thought patterns. Read below for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar challenges.

Therapist reviews

"Dr. Tassava is the best counselor I've ever had. She offers me real-life techniques and tools to handle my anxiety and stress. She has never once judged me for any of my issues and has honestly supported me through the most difficult time in my life. Over the past few months, with her support and guidance, I have been able to change my thinking, reaction, and how I handle major anxiety and stress. I am so thankful for her."

"Brentom is an excellent counselor, very easy to talk to, good at aiding me with focusing and reversing negative thought patterns, and being willing to try new techniques."

Takeaway

Black-and-white thinking is a cognitive distortion that can significantly affect your life if it is not challenged. There are several ways of reframing this thought pattern so that it is not the primary lens through which you view the world. If you’d like further support in identifying and replacing dichotomous thoughts, consider getting matched with a licensed therapist online. With the right help, you can avoid all-or-nothing thinking and take the next steps on your mental health journey.
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