The Trap of Black and White Thinking

The Trap of Black and White Thinking

Do you get stuck in black and white thinking and it is hard for you to see options other than all or nothing? Does rigid thinking cause you to live in extremes where it is "my way or the highway"? Black and white thinking, both at work and in relationships, is generally not a benefit that brings harmony. Are you aware of the downsides of dichotomous thinking in your life and how to change these patterns?

Dichotomous Thinking

Black and white thinking is dichotomous. Dichotomous means something is divided into 2 distinct and opposing parts.

Examples of dichotomous thinking:

  • happy-sad
  • good-bad
  • beautiful-ugly
  • success-failure
  • fat-skinny
  • never-always

Rigid Thinking

Rigid thinking can cause stress and conflict. Without flexibility of thought, people are less adaptable to the unpredictability of life in general. They may feel everything needs to be done in a certain way and miss out on alternative ways to view the world and achieve results.

Black and white thinking hinders growth and keeps people feeling stuck living in absolutes.

At Work and at Home: Black and White Thinking in Relationships

In relationships, people who think in extremes are less likely to compromise or cooperate to meet common interests. This can make someone seem inflexible and judgemental which can definitely stress a relationship.

Life is a Series of Negotiations

Life is a series of negotiations that often requires seeing a different person's point of view and even compromising in order to reach a goal. Being flexible is essential for satisfying balance in relationships where there can be equal give-and-take.

Dichotomous Thinking Harms Mental Health and Well-Being

Black and white thinking increases disappointment, frustration, anger, and anxiety in life. No-one can be all-good or all-bad or do everything perfectly.

Life isn't all-or-nothing and most decisions, events, and relationships fall somewhere in the middle. When something doesn't go as planned, rigid people forget that the alternative result may turn out for the best.

Anxiety and Rigid Thinking

Anxious people get tricked into rigid thinking because it gives a false sense of security that they have control over life's uncertainties. Dichotomous thinking falsely simplifies options but it isn't an accurate representation of the complexities of life.

Instead of reducing anxiety, thoughts are viewed through a distorted lens that makes people more anxious. If good or bad are the only options available that can put a lot of pressure on a person to be perfect! Using that logic, if I make a mistake then I am not good and therefore I am bad. If I am not a success than I am a failure. Ouch!

Looking for other tips on how to tackle anxiety? Read these posts!

Wondering how to stop black and white thinking?

1. Recognize rigid thinking:

The most important step to stop black and white thinking is to recognize inflexible and rigid thinking. It's difficult to make any progress without identifying and catching yourself when you are thinking in extremes.

Let trusted family or friends know you are working to identify these thinking traps and you may need some help recognizing it.

A therapist can be invaluable to help you identify these thinking patterns (called cognitive distortions).

If you would like to read more about cognitive distortions this article explains 10 common cognitive distortions.

2. Stop and challenge the dichotomous thinking:

Once you recognize a rigid thought you can stop and challenge the assumptions. Sometimes it is helpful to draw out a continuum and place your thoughts on it. Since rigid thoughts are on one end of the spectrum or the other, try to fill in ideas for what could exist in between the ends. What are other possibilities for the situation? Train yourself to see other options.

Remember that everything in life is a negotiation and look for balance in any situation. No-one and no situation is all good or all bad.

3.The Gray Zone 

When people learn to live in the gray zone they will find more happiness. There is a huge relief once rigid expectations are let go of allowing for more openness to a range of life's possibilities. Disappointments and anger will shift and letting go can happen. Anxiety will be reduced and healing can happen.

Give it a try! Start to identify when you may be getting stuck in dichotomous thinking and challenge yourself to begin to see the middle ground. It is there if you look.

What are your examples of black and white thinking? Has anything helped you see the middle ground easier?

Looking for additional mental health resources?

Visit the Mental Health Bookstore to see a list of doctor-recommended books on many different health topics.

A version of this article first appeared here

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  • Andrew Smith

    Life is actually full of subtle balance and varying degrees in every area of being human.

  • Mike Cunningham

    Rising above our dualistic black and white thinking means learning to identify our cognitive positions as rational or irrational.

  • Lizzy Turner

    We don’t have the answers to everything, life is not so black and white.

  • Daniel Turgoose

    To avoid black and white thinking, I tend to be more reflective than reactive.

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Melissa (Wheelock) Welby, MD

Healthcare Expert

Dr. Melissa Welby is a psychiatrist that participates in people’s process of discovery, empowerment, and search for satisfaction and happiness. She treats a variety of illnesses including depression, anxiety & panic attacks, adult ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorders), bipolar disorder, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and borderline personality disorder. She is also the current president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Association.She completed her Internship & Residency at Cambridge Hospital, affiliate of Harvard Medical School, 2000 to 2004. Dr. Melissa Welby is Board Certified in General Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 2005 to present. 


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