How Black And White Thinking Affects You
By Sarah Fader
Updated August 13, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Black and white thinking is something we all do, but for some, it seriously impacts their quality of life. Sometimes, this pattern of belief contributes to or is the result of mental illness, but anyone can fall victim to its trap. Here is everything you need to know about black and white thinking and how it affects you.
What Are Black And White Thinking?
Black and white thinking, sometimes referred to as dichotomous thinking, is the practice of thinking regarding "this," or "that." It often consists of taking an issue and describing it in very narrow ways, such as "good" or "bad", "hot" or "cold", or "day" or "night". Black and white thinking ignores the "shades of gray" that accompany every part of our lives.
Is Black And White Thinking Bad?
Using black and white thinking in many circumstances is natural. In fact, children are often taught to think in this way through concepts like "good" and "bad," or "big" and "little." Thinking categorically makes our worlds simpler, but when we use black and white thinking to understand the world around us too often, we could be faced with some serious consequences.
Our brains are programmed to emphasize our negative interpretations in life. This was a helpful, protective mechanism throughout history when we had to view the world in terms of survival or death. Without the constant threats of predators and the wilderness around us, our brains are left scanning and emphasizing the negative thoughts and situations that remain.
Because of our predisposition to emphasize the negative, and how easily we categorize the world around us, black and white thinking can affect us quickly. This is because black and white thinking focuses on firmly categorizing every perception and experience. It relies on thinking in absolutes like "never," "always," and "never" as in "I will never be happy," or "I always do things wrong."
Unfortunately, the more someone gives these negative thoughts power, the more likely they are to notice situations where that negative thought is manifested as truth. When we have reached this stage of black and white thinking, some things can go wrong.
Doors Begin To Close
Black and white thinking can creep its way into many aspects of life including our relationships, careers, and financial outlook. When we begin to view these areas of our lives as absolutes, it can become very easy to talk ourselves out of striving for more or taking the next step.
For example, if you begin to believe a thought like, "No one will ever like me" or "I will never get ahead in life," it is less likely that you will strive for opportunities that open doors to you. You may automatically dismiss chances for a job promotion or walk away from getting to know someone romantically because of your internal beliefs.
Everyone has areas in their personal lives that need improvement. Perhaps you are not the best at public speaking, or maybe it is difficult for you to initiate romantic gestures, but when you lump all your negative traits with black and white thinking, you ignore all the great qualities you bring to the table too.
Maybe at work, you always hit your metrics. Perhaps you are a very compassionate and thoughtful person. Maybe you have a knack for managing people or money well. The less you acknowledge your strengths due to black and white thinking, the more likely it is that you are missing out on life's bigger opportunities.
Friends & Family Get Hurt
Sometimes, when black and white thinking takes over our political, religious, or social views, we can fall into the trap of thinking that those who disagree with us are not worth our time. This can limit the enjoyment we get from family members, friends, and co-workers who have viewpoints that are different than our own.
If you notice yourself thinking, "All members of that political party are clueless! " or, "I could never get along with someone who believes something like that! " you are already on the road to cutting off healthy social relationships and are at risk of potentially hurting people who care about you.
Your Inner Voice Turns On You
Black and white thinking easily begins to affect how we feel about ourselves because it tends to overemphasize negative qualities. If you find your internal critic screaming insults like, "I am stupid," or, "Nobody likes me," you are heading down a slope towards dwindling self-confidence and lack of self-appreciation. The danger with these thoughts is that we are more likely to notice situations where we feel they are true. Before you know it, they become self-fulfilling prophecies we cannot seem to escape.
Your Inner Perfectionist Comes Out
Perfectionism is often a sign of black and white thinking. It causes us to think of everything we do in terms of success or failure. This may make us obsessed with ensuring failure does not happen to us. We may unrealistically overwork ourselves to achieve only the highest amount of success possible. Sometimes, we may not work towards a goal at all out of fear of not doing it "right." No matter which path we choose to avoid failure, this black and white thinking eats away at our motivation and our sense of self-worth.
Your Mental Health Suffers
One can quickly fall into anxiety or depression with black and white thinking. Oversimplified statements such as, "I will never be happy," or, "I am always worried," can play on repeat in our brains.
These underlying beliefs can become the lens which we view all things in our lives. We may resort to using words like "terrible," "overwhelming," and "ruined" to describe our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. These words and phrases like them can linger in the mind making it difficult to find joy anywhere.
How Can We Stop Black And White Thinking?
Black and white thinking does not have to be permanent. Our brains can easily be trained to pick up the "shades of gray" in life. It is important to learn how to notice black and white thinking to challenge it and thereby change the pain and problems it can cause in our lives.
You cannot solve a problem unless you know more about it and this is true for black and white thinking. When you notice yourself thinking in absolutes stop and pause for a moment.
At first you may be surprised by how often you are noticing these thoughts. Try to notice a pattern to them. Are they occurring more often in certain situations? Does anything make them worse or better? Try to refuse the thought and focus on something that challenges the black and white based belief instead.
Ask For Proof
If you find that your black and white thinking is causing you to ruminate on a negative thought, challenge the negative thought to prove itself. Maybe you often find yourself thinking something like, "I cannot do anything right."
Sit down and make a list of everything that disproves that thought, even if it is as small as, "I know all the words to my favorite song." Coming up with just one challenge automatically makes the black and white thought invalid.
It is very unlikely that any one person or one thing never changes. Just as some days can be sunny, turn rainy, and then return to sunny again, your thoughts, beliefs, and actions can shift in and out of phases too.
You can be organized and still lose something. You can be smart and still make mistakes. It is important to take time to see balance and change happening in your everyday life.
Change How You Talk
Focus on bringing the word "and" into your vocabulary, using it in place of absolutes like "never," "always," and "every." Train yourself to speak and think without boundaries. Try on sentences like "I am shy and caring" or "I am messy and funny."
Let "and" work in other areas of your life too. See how phrases like "My job is stressful and rewarding," or "My spouse is forgetful and sensitive," can promote a sense of balance in your life. Positive and negative have placed in each aspect of life and can exist without the help of "never" or "always".
Journal Of The Good Stuff
Writing daily in a gratitude journal is a great way to shift your overall perception from negative to positive. All it takes is five minutes a day. To start, simply list all the things you are grateful for that day. Aim for at least three.
These can be mundane statements like, "I am thankful for warm socks," or bigger appreciations such as, "I am thankful I am alive today!" Anything you give thanks for works! Over time, you will retrain your brain to notice things that you are grateful for. Your list will begin to grow and so will your positivity.
Black and white thinking itself is not a bad thing, but when it is the only lens we use to view the world around us, it can have major effects. The best thing about black and white thinking is that when we realize it is no longer serving us, we can undo the damage. Break free of black and white thinking today by speaking with a BetterHelp professional.