My sister is the beautiful one; I’m so ugly!
I can’t believe I made this mistake! My life is ruined!
I missed that one problem on my math test- I am completely horrible at math!
My partner didn’t take my feelings into consideration, so they must be a complete ass!
These are all examples of Black or white thinking. Black or White thinking is a pattern of thinking in which you think only in extremes of all good or all bad without any of the multitudes of shades of grey between the two. So, something is either absolutely wonderful, or it’s all crap. This type of thinking can simplify the world for you, but it also can have a deep effect on your relationships with others around you.
How is Black or White Thinking Harmful?
Black or white thinking is also known as all-or-nothing thinking, or at its extreme as splitting. It is one of the types of cognitive distortions that we talk about in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) because it is essentially faulty thinking and a way that our brains fool us in their attempt to protect us from harm. Consider some of the ways this type of thinking can harm you.
1. Black or white thinking can undermine your relationships with a partner, or with others in your life like friends and family. Believing that the other person is wonderful at one moment, and then the worst person at the next can erode any positive feelings you share about each other as well as any trust you have built. Seeing the other person as either all good or all bad doesn’t allow you to see the real person including all the good traits and all of the faults that make each person uniquely them and uniquely loveable.
2. Black or white thinking can undermine your sense of self-esteem. Seeing yourself as either all good or all bad can seriously skew your sense of self and get in your way of seeing yourself realistically as someone with strengths and weaknesses.
3. Black or white thinking can undermine your success at work and in life. Thinking in this manner can see you walking away from jobs that you are terrible at, or having difficulty accepting negative feedback for something that you have decided you are the best at. Black or white thinking interferes with your ability to collaborate with others. Just like in other areas, black-or-white thinking keeps you from seeing and understanding the complexities that are inherent in life.
4. Black or white thinking can change the way you see yourself in that it can lead you to thinking of yourself in terms such as “disgustingly fat”, “completely ugly”, or to see your body only in terms of good. This can lead to extreme dieting or exercise, or can cause you to behave in ways that undermine you in your daily life.
How to Counter Black and White Thinking
The good news is that you can change the way you think and get out of the habit of black-or-white thinking! Try some of these exercises that I’ve listed below:
1. Try to notice what words you are using. There are some words that are a pretty good sign that you are using black or white thinking. These include:
If you notice yourself using one of these words, check if you are using black or white thinking. If you are, you can easily change the word for something a bit more grey. For example, if you thought, ”I always screw this up! I am such a screwup!”. You can change it to “Sometimes I mess up, but so does everyone”.
2. Is there proof that what you are saying or thinking is true? Check the actual facts. Was there never a time that you didn’t get it right? Do you really always, 100% of the time screw it up? Chances are you can think of at least 1 time when you succeeded.
3. Make a list! If you think to yourself, “My sister is the absolute worse! She never helps me!”. You can test this by sitting down and making a list of any and all ways that your sister is not the worst person. Maybe she helped you with your homework once, or she is kind to the elderly neighbor, or she makes great cupcakes. You get the idea.
4. Learn to reframe your thoughts. This is a CBT technique to change your habitual irrational thoughts into something kinder and more forgiving. In this instance, you would try to change your thoughts into ones that are greyer.
5. Talk with a therapist. Black or white thinking can be an unhelpful pattern of thinking, but it can also be a sign that you have a more serious mental illness such as Borderline Personality Disorder or OCD. Either way, it can be helpful to talk with someone who is trained to help you resolve this issue.
Black or white thinking is a pattern of thinking that you have most likely been using for most of your life. Because of this, it will most likely take some time and effort to change it into something more helpful and healthier. So give yourself the time and the grace needed to make this challenging change in your life. It will be worth it.
If you want to talk further about this, or would like information about CBT therapy, follow the link.