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  • Writer's pictureDena Lampert

Imagine A World In Just Black And White

Could you imagine life in just black and white? No color, no in between, not even any gray! Well, that’s how some of us might find ourselves thinking in certain situations.

Black or white thinking (also known as all or nothing, or dichotomous thinking) is one of the most common cognitive distortions. We all engage in cognitive distortions every now and again—it’s pretty normal—but when these cognitive distortions start to take over more logical and rational thinking, that’s when we can start to feel anxiety, anger, sadness, and irritability. As you might remember from our blog on mind reading, cognitive distortions are assumptions we make based on minimal evidence, or without considering the evidence at all.

In today’s blog, we’re going to talk about what black or white thinking is, how it might present itself in your life, and strategies for realizing and acknowledging when you might be falling into this cognitive distortion.

What is black or white thinking?

Black or white thinking is a cognitive distortion that is very common among people with anxiety and depression. This way of thinking is characterized by splitting your views into two extremes (black or white) and leaving little room for any in-between. If you are using black or white thinking you may find yourself narrowing down every situation into two opposite extremes and evaluating your life in extreme terms—things are either perfect or a complete disaster.

Black or white thinking can present itself in our thoughts in lots of different ways, but here are some examples:

  • “If I’m not the life of the party, I’ll end up sitting in a corner and no one will speak to me.”

  • “If I don’t get 100% on this exam, I’m going to fail.”

  • “My best friend is the best person in the world and is always there for me”

  • “My best friend is the worst person I’ve ever met and is never there for me.”

Most of us engage in black or white thinking from time to time, and that’s totally ok. But when black or white thinking starts to become normal, it can affect your mental health, put strain on your relationships, and lead you to having a distorted perception of reality. It can prevent us from enjoying things that don’t seem perfect, and since pretty much nothing is completely perfect, it can lead to us thinking very negatively about ourselves, our friends, our family, and our life.

Signs that you might be experiencing black or white thinking

There are certain aspects of your life that may signal to you that you often use black or white thinking. These include:

1. Using superlatives

You might find yourself using superlatives often to explain situations. These may include words such as always, never, impossible, disaster, and perfect.

2. You give up when things don’t go to plan

You might find yourself giving up easily. Maybe you wanted to go to the gym three times this week but you only managed to go twice. Or maybe you wanted to read this evening but you didn’t have enough time. Just because those activities didn’t fall into your original schedule, it doesn’t mean that you should give them up altogether, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you’ve failed.

3. You find it hard to feel grateful

If you are using black or white thinking you might find it hard to think of things to be grateful for as you might often find yourself thinking negatively about most things in your life.

How to stop black or white thinking

Once you have recognized that you might be using black or white thinking, some of the following methods might help you reduce the amount you are falling into this cognitive distortion.

1. Write down options

If you are in a certain situation and black or white thinking has got you thinking that there are only two possible outcomes, try writing down some options. Write down as many possible outcomes as you can. This will help you to realize that there is a lot of gray in between that black and white.

2. Write down your strengths and weaknesses

As we’ve discussed, black and white thinking can often lead us to feel negative about ourselves. If this is the case then the practice of writing down your strengths and weaknesses can really help. Everyone is good at some things and bad at others. No one is perfect!

3. Embrace your mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. Even those people who you idealize and think are totally perfect. We all make mistakes—it’s a part of life. So why not embrace them? Next time you make a mistake try thinking of it as a learning opportunity as opposed to concluding that you’re a failure.

4. Find out what other people think

The best way to get some broader perspective on situations is to ask others what they think as black or white thinking can often make it hard for us to understand other people’s perspectives. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! (And if you’re looking for some effective communication techniques, check out our blog here.)

Black or white thinking during COVID times

Black or white thinking can lead to lots of problems in our lives if we don’t recognize and work to improve it, especially during COVID times. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s the need to be flexible and adaptable.

These current times are unpredictable. Just a couple of months ago the atmosphere in the US felt pretty relaxed as people were being vaccinated and case numbers were decreasing, but now there are growing concerns around the Delta variant and new restrictions that may start to unfold. And in the spring of 2021 it was easy to assume that COVID was over and life was going to be normal from then on, but things have been changing rapidly in the current climate and the only way to cope is to be able to adapt our thinking.

If you notice yourself falling into the pattern of black and white thinking and would like some support in managing these thoughts, we recommend reaching out to a qualified CBT therapist. By working with a CBT therapist, you will be supported through identifying when you are using black of white thinking, how to identify it yourself, and how to restructure your thoughts into more all-inclusive ways of thinking.


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