There are instances where the ways in which we think and view the world become a great hindrance in our lives. Black and white thinking is an example of this. It is a type of thinking trap (formally known as cognitive distortions). They are thinking patterns characterized by their negative, irrational and inaccurate nature. This particular cognitive distortion occurs when people think in extremities and fail to see what lies in-between. The following article explores just why it is important to discontinue all or nothing thinking and strategies how to do this.
Black and White Thinking: A Summary
When people are subject to this type of cognitive distortion, essentially they see things in black and white, overlooking the grey. There is no in-between, instead just polar opposites. Thinking and looking at things in black and white, for example, can make people unable to see what lies in the middle of these two extremities. So they fail to consider this when forming beliefs. For instance, they might make an error while working on a project and feel the whole thing is a disaster, or think someone is the best just because that person performed a good deed. But they won’t see realities of the situations that could neutralise these views. In the case of the previous examples, these could be other areas of that project which were successful or things about the person that may not make them as great.
Why It’s Important to Fix This Cognitive Distortion
One of the main features of thinking traps is the ability to impact people’s lives; they make people view things in inaccurate ways. Black and white thinking- formally known as ‘dichotomous thinking’- does this too. It is true that many of us have engaged in this type of thinking without even being aware sometimes. However, problems arise especially when it becomes the dominant form of thinking and takes over how we view the world. The reality is that life is mostly ‘grey’ rather than ‘black’ and ‘white’; it is comprised of complexities and cannot be clear-cut into ‘this’ or ‘that’. Doing this can prove disadvantageous. For example, black and white thinking can make people alternate often between both extremes: it can interfere with how they view the world, those around them, and themselves.
Likely outcomes of dichotomous thinking:
Poor judgement of situations and people
Poor eating habits (because of distorted views on certain foods and body image)
Negative feelings such as sadness, worry, anger, stress, demotivation
Development or aggravation of mental health conditions namely depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders
Obstruction of learning due to the impacts of a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ mindset (if students see themselves as failing in areas of their academics they can be reluctant to apply themselves)
Problems with career (resulting from the rigidity of this thinking trap)
Addressing cognitive distortions is essential and all-or-nothing thinking is no exception to this. If avoided it can lead to consequences such as those mentioned above.
Strategies for all or nothing thinking
One of the most important things to remember is that it is possible to change our ways of thinking. Even though it may seem an overwhelming feat to overcome something we’re so used to or seems to happen so naturally, it is possible. It will have its challenges, but this is the case in changing anything we are used to. With time and consistent effort, we can grow more accustomed to it and its level of ease can increase.
The strategies in the list below are some things you can practice to overcome this way of thinking:
Be aware of your thoughts
Sometimes out of habit, we automatically tend to view things in certain ways. This could perpetuate unhealthy thinking patterns. Being aware and identifying your thoughts are some of the first steps to change certain ways you think. When you begin observing your thoughts you can notice patterns. Acknowledge the presence of these thoughts- this doesn’t mean accepting what they say, just that they are there in your mind.
Alter the content of your thoughts
Once you’ve acknowledged these thoughts the next step is to replace them with healthier alternatives.
1. Replace the words you use
Since black and white thinking is characterised by viewing things in extremes this can be done by neutralising the thought and finding its middle ground, for example. Using words (such as extreme adjectives and adverbs like ‘never’, ‘always’) can sometimes influence our attitudes towards what we’re describing. So instead of using strong vocabulary to label situations, opt for milder versions.
2. Reason with your thoughts
This is especially true for thinking traps as they cause thoughts that are irrational and exaggerated in nature. For instance, imagine the scenario where you are late to a party hosted by your friend and everyone had to wait for you. Thinking in black and white might make you believe you’re an irresponsible and awful friend for doing that. And it can cause negative emotions and self-punishing thoughts to arise.
Reasoning with yourself can help to avoid or manage this. You might be fixating on what happened and considering yourself an awful person because of it. But you won’t be looking at the broader picture which consists of all the times you’ve been a good friend. Remembering this may not alleviate whatever guilt you may feel about the situation and won’t take the accountability away from you. However, it will provide evidence showing that you are not an awful friend and that one event doesn’t determine that. You can hold yourself responsible and feel remorse without having to beat yourself up about it.
List out other possibilities
Given that polarised thinking can produce either of two outcomes, coming up with more of them could lower the chances of thinking in black and white. When you feel yourself engaging in this thinking trap, instead of being carried away by it, think of all the other possibilities that can occur. It can widen your perspective and not restrict it to just ‘this’ or ‘that’.
Look for proof behind your thoughts
Finding evidence is another one of the strategies that help address this thinking trap. It allows you to determine how accurate your thoughts are. There are occasions where we think in certain ways out of habit instead of having a genuine reason to do so. Because of this, things may not be as accurate in reality as our thoughts make them out to be. All or nothing thinking consists of exaggerated thoughts. So, for example, we can ask ourselves the reasons why we ‘hate’ something instead of just ‘dislike’ it, or why we are certain that something is going to be a failure than a success. This can make us evaluate if we have substantial evidence to support our thoughts.
Use social support to guide you
Oftentimes, looking outside our personal bubbles and reaching out to others around us or putting ourselves in their shoes can prove to be quite helpful strategies and make a big difference in our thinking.
1. Talk to someone about it
Getting someone else to weigh in on what you’re going through is an example of how to use the impact of others to combat black and white thinking. Doing this can bring in another perspective on the matter. They may see things differently than you and communicating this can help widen your own view on the situation. There are times where it is difficult to tell ourselves something other than what we believe at that moment. Additionally, we might not be able to think of other things to tell ourselves either. It is in times like these that speaking to someone we are comfortable with can help. Since they will be seeing the matter from an external angle- as opposed to being at the centre of it- they are most likely to have a better view.
2. Talk to yourself like you do with a loved one
How we talk with others- especially those we love and care about- often contrasts from how we speak to ourselves, sometimes over the same thing. We tend to be more critical and harsh in our self-talk. This can not only be unfair to us but also unhealthy. It sometimes becomes a habit and can just expose us to harmful negativity.
One way that can be useful for managing black and white thoughts is to ask if what you’re saying to yourself is something you would say to someone you cared about. For instance, would you tell someone else they looked horrible if they actually looked okay? Chances are you would not. If it is not something you would tell them or want them to believe, you most likely should not be telling it to yourself either.
Engage in mindfulness
Mindfulness is widely stated as being one of the most helpful practices for numerous difficulties people face. Mental health services have been increasingly incorporating it into their practice due to the benefits it has shown in dealing with related issues as well.
To put it simply, mindfulness is the ability to be present in the moment and bringing attention to it. It increases our awareness of our surroundings plus our thoughts and actions. Due to this, we can view our thoughts better. It also allows us to judge our thoughts without being influenced by our emotions or reacting to them. This is often because our bodies and minds grow calmer and our clarity over situations increases as a result of engaging in mindfulness. Managing and reframing our thoughts become easier to do. And this can be very beneficial.
Get the help of a professional
Even though the strategies mentioned may help with all or nothing thinking, seeking out professional help is never a bad idea. Therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), are designed to address maladaptive thoughts and behaviours. Mental health professionals such as therapists and counsellors will collaborate with you to identify areas in your thinking, for example, that need to be addressed. They will devise personalised treatment plans based on what needs addressing and the personal goals you wish to achieve. The goal of therapy is to ultimately enable people to alter their thoughts and behaviours by themselves. Therefore, you will be introduced to ways and means that help you get there.
It is the nature of cognitive distortions such as black and white thinking to adversely impact the lives of those having them, and even those around them. If left unattended it only continues to create further difficulties for people and becomes more deep-rooted within them. Thinking traps are not unusual occurrences, many of us are subject to them without even knowing. However, attempting to overcome it and staying dedicated to doing so is of great importance and our responsibility.
The strategies listed above can get you started and even help you attain success in defeating this thinking trap. Just remember that practice and consistency are vital keys. If you keep at it you will get there, and don’t forget to be kind to yourself along the way too!