How Black And White Thinking Affects You
Updated November 08, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Black-and-white thinking is something we all do, but some people use it too much, and it seriously impacts their quality of life. Sometimes, these thought patterns contribute to or are the result of mental illness, but anyone can struggle with them. In this article, you'll find everything you need to know about black-and-white thinking and how it affects you.
How Black-and-White Thinking Affects You
Black-and-white thinking, sometimes referred to as dichotomous thinking, is the practice of thinking in terms of "this" or "that." It often consists of describing an issue in very narrow ways, such as "good" and "bad," "hot" and "cold," or "day" and "night." Black-and-white thinking ignores the shades of gray that are present in every part of our lives.
Is Black-and-White Thinking Bad?
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 simpler, but when we use black-and-white thinking too often, there may be negative consequences.
Our brains are programmed to emphasize negative interpretations of life. This was a helpful, protective mechanism throughout history when we had to view the world in terms of survival or death. Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, looking for the bad things kept us alive. Even without the constant threat of predators and the wilderness around us, our brains are still scanning for trouble and emphasizing negative thoughts.
Because of this predisposition to emphasize the negative and the way we tend to categorize the world around us, black-and-white thinking can affect us quickly. This is because it focuses on firmly categorizing every perception and experience. It relies on thinking in absolutes like "never" or "always," as in "I will never be happy," or "I always do things wrong."
Unfortunately, the more someone gives power to these negative thoughts, the more likely they are to notice situations where the negative thoughts are manifested as truth. When we reach this stage of black-and-white thinking, life can become very challenging.
Doors Begin to Close
Black-and-white thinking can creep into many aspects of life, including our relationships, our careers, and our finances. 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.
For example, if you begin to believe thoughts 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 for you. You may automatically dismiss a chance for a job promotion or walk away from getting to know someone romantically because of these beliefs.
Everyone has areas that need improvement in their personal lives. Perhaps you are not the best at public speaking, or maybe it's difficult for you to initiate romantic gestures. When you lump all of your negative traits together with black-and-white thinking, you start to ignore all of the great qualities you bring to the table.
Maybe you always hit your metrics at work. 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're 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 people who disagree with us are not worth our time. When this is the case, we may no longer enjoy spending time with family members, friends, and coworkers who have viewpoints that differ from ours.
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," then you're already on the road to cutting yourself off from healthy social relationships. You're also at risk of potentially hurting people who care about you.
Your Inner Voice Turns on You
Too much black-and-white thinking 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," then you are heading toward dwindling self-confidence and lack of self-appreciation. These thoughts are dangerous because we're more likely to notice situations where we feel they are true while completing ignoring situations that prove them false. Before you know it, they become self-fulfilling prophecies that 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. As such, we become obsessed with avoiding failure at all costs. We may become unrealistic or overwork ourselves to achieve success.
Sometimes, we may not work toward 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 through which we view our lives. As things escalate, we may resort to using words like "terrible," "overwhelming," and "ruined" to describe our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. These words and similar phrases can linger in our 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 on life's many shades of gray. It's important to learn how to notice black-and-white thinking, so you can challenge it and thereby eliminate the pain it causes.
Ask for Proof
If you find that your black-and-white thinking causes you to ruminate on a negative thought, challenge that thought, and look for proof.
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. You can even write down small things like "I know all of the words to my favorite song." Coming up with just one point of proof automatically invalidates the black-and-white thought.
It's unlikely for any one person or thing to always be one way or another. Just as some days can be sunny and others are rainy, your thoughts, beliefs, and actions can shift from day to day as well.
You can be organized and still lose something. You can be smart and still make mistakes. It is important to notice this balance in your everyday life. Then you may find it easier to stop using words like "always" or "never."
Other Ways to Stop Black-and-White Thinking
Try to change the way you are thinking by exploring your thought patterns. Do black-and-white thoughts occur more often in certain situations? Does anything make them better or worse? What happens if you refute the black-and-white thought and focus on something that challenges it instead?
Writing daily in a gratitude journal is a great way to shift your overall mindset from negative to positive. All it takes is five minutes a day. To start, list at least three things you are grateful for that day. Feel free to list as many as you can!
Focus on bringing the word "and" into your vocabulary, and use it in place of absolutes like "never," "always," and "every." Train yourself to speak and think without boundaries. Try on affirmations like "I am shy and caring" or "I am messy and funny."
Talk to a Professional
Black-and-white thinking is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can have major effects on our lives if it's the only lens we use to view the world around us. The best thing about black-and-white thinking is that we can change the way we think at any time. Break free of black-and-white thinking today by speaking with a mental health professional at BetterHelp. A trained therapist knows exactly how to guide you toward a healthier mindset, so they can give you the support you need to make this change. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"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, reacting 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."
Black-and-white thinking can create negative thoughts patterns and make life difficult. If you're struggling with black-and-white thinking, help is available to you. Try some of the tips in this article, or reach out to a licensed counselor for support today.