Overcoming Black and White Thinking in a Colorful World
Have you ever found yourself thinking things like I'll never be good enough, I'm a terrible person, or she's so perfect? Let's be honest; we've all thought something at least similar to one of these at some point in our lives. For some, we may think like this periodically, but for others, this type of thinking happens daily or even constantly, and there's a name for it: black and white thinking.
The technical, psychological term for black and white thinking is dichotomous thinking, or "splitting". Essentially, this type of thinking is when someone swings between two extremes. Things are either one way or the other without any middle ground. This means that things are either good or bad, perfect or a complete disaster, success or failure, possible or impossible, etc.
The idea of thinking in such extremes may cause you to believe that such a practice is rare. While extreme black and white thinking can be less common, general black and white thinking isn't. In fact, black and white thoughts can often be quite subtle and seem like regular thoughts. Here are just a few examples of what black and white thinking looks like:
- "I totally failed that test!"
- "I'm so stupid."
- "She's so perfect, and I'm not."
- She's so pretty, and I'm so ugly."
- I'll never be thin/pretty/smart/funny/etc. enough."
- Thinking others are either on your side or against you.
- Thinking someone is wonderful one moment and then thinking they're the worst (usually as a result of them doing something you think they shouldn't be, that is "bad").
The Harm of Black and White Thinking
While many people may be able to see the variances in how life goes, those who practice black and white thinking often exasperate themselves and their mental health. In fact, black and white thinking is often linked to cases of depression and anxiety. In extreme cases, it can even be classified as Borderline Personality Disorder. Psychologists say that black and white thinking can lead to several negative behaviors, including:
- Low self-esteem
- Extreme self-criticism and self-condemnation
- Little regard for others due to the failure to recognize the human condition
- Vindictive actions towards others
- Low moods
- Fatigue from high levels of stress
- Rollercoaster emotions, particularly in relationships
Black and white thinking can be destructive to ourselves and our relationships with others. It can cause us to fail to experience the richness that should come from living simply because we refuse to see other perspectives in a given situation. When we start thinking that things should be one way or the other, but have them turn out differently, work and relationships and life in general can seem a million times harder. We are constantly thrown through ups and downs, which makes like just feel exhausting. Black and white thinking often leads to people thinking that life is going the way we want it to, or all hope is lost.
Overcoming Black and White Thinking
If you take a good, hard look at life, you'll see that things aren't quite so black and white. Instead, it is made up of a million different shades of gray. And by that, we mean that each situation has various perspectives, outcomes, and lessons. Life does not happen in absolutes, and because of that, thinking in absolutes can be detrimental.
The best thing you can do to overcome black and white thinking is to change your thought process to what's called dialectical thinking, rainbow thinking, or thinking in shades of gray. Essentially, this type of thinking helps you practice balanced thinking, recognizing that there are different nuances and perspectives in each situation...and being okay with it. Instead of having two extremes, there are numerous options to choose from, and all have value.
Now, changing your way of thinking is easier said than done. But, it is possible. Here are just some of the steps that psychologists recommend doing to start thinking in a more rainbow-like way:
- Accept that you aren't perfect, and give yourself realistic expectations.
- Practice mindful thinking, and recognize the times when you use black and white thinking.
- Try to find a gray or rainbow outlook/perspective/solution to your situation.
- Keep track of situations where you practice black and white thinking, and when you practice gray or rainbow thinking.
What Does Rainbow Thinking Look Like?
If you are striving to practice more mindful and rainbow thinking, it can be difficult to know if you're on the right track. To give you an idea, here are some examples of what rainbow thinking looks like:
- You recognize that situations can be viewed in more than one way.
- You recognize that problems can be solved in different ways, and more than one way can be right.
- You substitute words like "always", "never", and "either/or" with words like "frequently", "at times", or "seldom".
- You understand that someone might want you to do something, but you can also say no.
- You can love someone and also be angry or upset with them.
- You use phrases like "I feel..." to express your thoughts instead of telling someone "You are mean/rude/etc."
- You can be kind and still set firm, appropriate boundaries.
- You can accept yourself as who you are and still want to change some things.
- You can question your ability to do something but still give it a shot.
- You can validate why someone might feel a certain way and still not tolerate harmful behavior or words.
There are so many more ways that you can see your progress towards more rainbow thinking, but the biggest thing is that you take time to recognize your progress. Too often we forget that we are a work in progress, that we - and everyone else - are not perfect, and that can get us right back into the slump of black and white thinking.
Life is a rainbow, full of colorful and varying perspectives and lessons. Having the ability to recognize such diversity in life makes it more enjoyable and relationships more meaningful. So, the next time you find yourself practicing black and white thinking, try finding the middle ground and other perspectives. Once you find it, plant your fee there, and experience all that life has to offer.
“Black and White Thinking.” Practicing Mindfulness. https://www.practicingmindfulness.com/black-and-white-thinking/
“Black-and-White vs. Rainbow Thinking.” Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue. 11 December 2013. https://www.edcatalogue.com/black-and-white-vs-rainbow-thinking/
Gattuso, Reina. “5 Ways Black and White Thinking Poisons Your Perspective.” Talk Space. 31 July 2018. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/black-white-thinking-ways-poisons-your-perspective/
Hurst, Katherine. “How To Stop Black And White Thinking (Dichotomous Reasoning).” The Law of Attraction. https://thelawofattraction.com/dichotomous-reasoning/
Williams, Bryan. “Black and White Thinking doesn’t Work in a Gray World.” Huffington Post. 02 October 2016. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/black-and-white-thinking_b_30747
Woods, Rachel Fintzy, MA, LMFT. “How to Stop Black-and-White Thinking.” Psych Central. 31 May 2018. https://psychcentral.com/blog/cultivating-contentment/2018/05/how-to-stop-black-and-white-thinking#1