When people describe something – how they are feeling today, a past experience, what they think about their performance or appearance, or nearly anything else – they often choose one word in a pair of opposites. Maybe they are doing good today, their last vacation was exhausting, and their work performance was a failure. This is an example of black and white thinking, a way of looking at things as all or nothing.
But few things are rarely all bad or good, all beautiful or ugly, all success or failure. Tasks are rarely impossible and results are never perfect. While this thinking enables us to give a quick assessment to either ourselves or others, it is actually a cognitive distortion. It can limit our confidence, erode relationships, and keep us from new experiences. It also directly impacts emotions.
How to Stop Thinking in Black and White
There are a few different names for black and white thinking: dichotomous thinking, splitting (in the context of Borderline Personality Disorder), and all-or-nothing thinking. It can be tied to a mental health disorder or past trauma, and is a dominant way of thinking for perfectionists. Once you start thinking in black and white, it can quickly become a habit.
When you use extremes to describe a situation, you soon start believing those extremes, even if the reality is a healthier middle ground. You can break yourself from this way of thinking by focusing on “grey thinking,” finding the middle ground by:
- Using “Grey” Words – When you are compelled to describe something, soften the description. Instead of “I am a bad person,” try “I am a complicated person” or “At this moment, I feel like a bad person.”
- Practicing Mindfulness – Taking time for self awareness gives you a chance to delve deeper into your thoughts, enabling you to understand them in a more nuanced way.
- Name Specifics – If you notice yourself thinking in black and white, name one specific positive and one specific negative. If you hate work, maybe you like your coworker but dislike a job duty.
Like any habit, quitting black and white thinking takes effort and commitment. Many people benefit from seeing a psychologist as well who can give them support and tailored techniques to help change their way of thinking and address issues caused by black and white thinking, such as anxiety and depression.