Black And White Thinking

Black And White Thinking
Team of medical staff having morning meeting in boardroom. Doctors and nurses looking at digital tablet.

Many readers are interested in the following topic: Black and White Thinking. We are happy to note, that our authors have already studied the modern research about the topic you are interested in. Based on the information provided in the latest medical digests, modern research and surveys, we provide extensive answer. Keep reading to find out more.

I’m bad at math. Most math teachers hear this proclamation over and over during the school year.

How Black and White Thinking Hurts You (and What You Can Do to Change It)

Black and white thinking is the tendency to think in extremes: I am a brilliant success, or I am an utter failure. My boyfriend is an angel, or He’s the devil incarnate.

This thought pattern, which the American Psychological Association also calls dichotomous or polarized thinking, is considered a cognitive distortion because it keeps us from seeing the world as it often is: complex, nuanced, and full of all the shades in between.

An all-or-nothing mindset doesn’t allow us to find the middle ground. And let’s face it: There’s a reason most people don’t live on Everest or in the Mariana Trench. It’s hard to sustain life at those extremes.

Most of us engage in dichotomous thinking from time to time. In fact, some experts think this pattern may have its origins in human survival — our fight or flight response.

But if thinking in black and white becomes a habit, it can:

  • hurt your physical and mental health
  • sabotage your career
  • cause disruption in your relationships

(Note: There is conversation in the sexual health and mental health fields about NOT referring to dichotomous or polarized thinking in terms of ‘black and white thinking’ as it could be interpreted as referring color and race. More often, professionals refer to it as extremes or polarizations.)

Here, we discuss:

  • how to recognize polarized thoughts
  • what they could be telling you about your health
  • what you can do to develop a more balanced outlook

Certain words can alert you that your thoughts are becoming extreme.

  • always
  • never
  • impossible
  • disaster
  • furious
  • ruined
  • perfect

Of course, these words aren’t bad in themselves. However, if you notice that they keep coming up in your thoughts and conversations, it could be a signal that you’ve adopted a black and white perspective on something.

It can harm your relationships

Relationships happen between individuals, whether they see each other as family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, or something else entirely.

And because people have ups and downs (to phrase it dichotomously), plus quirks and inconsistencies, conflicts inevitably arise.

If we approach normal conflicts with dichotomous thinking, we’ll probably draw the wrong conclusions about other people, and we’ll miss opportunities to negotiate and compromise.

Worse still, black and white thinking can cause a person to make decisions without thinking about the impact of that decision on themselves and others involved.

Examples may include:

  • suddenly moving people from the “good person” category to the “bad person” category
  • quitting a job or firing people
  • breaking up a relationship
  • avoiding genuine resolution of the issues

Dichotomous thinking often shifts between idealizing and devaluing others. Being in a relationship with someone who thinks in extremes can be really difficult because of the repeated cycles of emotional upheaval.

It can keep you from learning

I’m bad at math. Most math teachers hear this proclamation over and over during the school year.

It’s the product of a success or failure mindset, which is a natural outgrowth of a grading system that defines failure (scores of 0–59) as over half the grading scale.

Some courses even have a simple binary to measure learning: pass or fail. One or the other.

It’s all too easy to fall into dichotomous thinking about your academic accomplishments.

A growth mindset, which is becoming increasingly popular, encourages students to recognize incremental progress toward mastery — to see themselves moving closer to being able to do what they have set out to do.

It can limit your career

Dichotomous thinking makes and sticks to rigidly defined categories: My job. Their job. My role. Their role.

In many collaborative work environments where roles shift, expand, and re-form, having rigid limits can keep you and the organization from achieving goals.

A 2017 study examined the workings of a Dutch film studio.

It found that some ambiguity in people’s roles and responsibilities had positive overall effects on the creative project, even though some conflicts arose as people expanded the scope of their work.

Black and white thinking can also limit how you think of your career prospects.

During the 2008 financial crisis, many people lost jobs they’d held for a long time.

Whole sectors slowed or stopped hiring. The crisis forced people to look expansively at their skill sets, rather than clinging fiercely to a rigid idea of what they could do.

Thinking of your career as fixed and narrowly defined could cause you to miss out on possibilities you might find enriching, literally and figuratively speaking.

It can disrupt healthy eating habits

Several studies have found a connection between eating disorders and dichotomous thinking.

Black and white thinking can cause people to:

  • look at certain foods as good or bad
  • look at their own bodies as either perfect or revolting
  • eat in binge-purge, all-or-nothing cycles

Researchers have also found that dichotomous thinking can lead people to create rigid dietary restraints, which can make it hard to maintain a healthy relationship with food.

Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking is a thought pattern that makes people think in absolutes. For instance, you may think you are either always right or the world’s biggest failure. Psychologists consider this thought pattern to be a cognitive distortion because it keeps you from seeing life the way it really is: complex, uncertain, and constantly changing.

Black and white thinking doesn’t allow you to find the middle ground, which can be hard to sustain in life at those extremes. Becoming less rigid in our thinking lets us stop using “all or nothing” statements to depress ourselves without examining whether or not they’re true. Using this ‘cognitive’ technique helps you to spot what you are doing and challenge your false impressions.

What Causes Black and White Thinking?

While it’s normal to experience black and white thinking sometimes in life, it could be a sign of something more serious if it becomes persistent. All or nothing thinking is commonly associated with these conditions:

Narcissism. Narcissism is an exaggerated, excessive interest in oneself. Black and white thinking can be a symptom of this personality disorder. People who have it will often find it challenging to get help because they quickly dismiss doctors and therapists.

Anxiety and depression. When people have anxiety and depression, it’s common for them to think in absolutes. More extreme emotions can cause black and white thinking to become worse.

Borderline personality disorder.Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness that causes people to experience intense feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression. They often will have symptoms of poor impulse control and frequently display black and white thinking.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s common for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder to think in absolutes because it gives them a sense of control and comfort. This can lead to a lot of rigidity which makes it hard to change.

Impact of Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking can have very different effects on your mental health depending on its cause.

Relationships. If you approach normal relationship conflicts with extreme, black and white thinking, you’ll often draw the wrong conclusions about other people and miss opportunities to talk things out and compromise. Examples may include:

  • Suddenly moving people from the “good person” category to the “bad person” category
  • Quitting a job or firing people
  • Breaking up a relationship
  • Avoiding a real resolution of the issues

Learning. Many courses have simple measurements of performance: pass or fail. This can lead students to believe they are either good or bad at school, with no room for a middle ground. Adopting a growth mindset can help students recognize the value in step-by-step progress as you get closer to the goal of mastering the subject.

Career. Sometimes black and white thinking can cause you to become too rigid. This type of thinking can be a problem in work environments where there is a lot of collaboration and sharing of different ideas.

Diet. If you think about what you eat in extremes, it could greatly restrict your diet and make it hard to try new things. This type of thinking may also cause you to see your physical appearance and body as only good or bad, which can be damaging to your mental health.

Change Your Outlook for Your Mental Health

If you want to think in black and white less, try these tips:

Reframe your thinking. If you catch yourself jumping to extremes, try challenging yourself. Think about why you might be thinking the way you are and whether there is another viewpoint you may not have considered.

Watch your words. Black and white thinking words like “always’ and “never” are signals to pay attention to. If you hear yourself saying things like that, remind yourself to replace it with different words like “maybe” and “sometimes”.

Acceptance. If there is one constant in life, it’s change. Try to be comfortable not knowing everything. It’s OK to ask for more time to think about something or say, “I don’t know”.

Cognitive behavioral therapy. Many psychologists recommend something called cognitive behavior therapy, which can help you overcome unhelpful thinking patterns.

  • Learn to recognize distortions in your thinking that create problems and counter your habits.
  • Gain a better understanding of the behavior and motivation of others.
  • Use problem-solving skills to manage difficult situations.
  • Get a greater sense of confidence in your own abilities.
  • Move from extreme thinking to a more flexible and adaptable mindset.

With the right strategies and professional help, you can learn how to replace extreme thinking with healthier, more helpful approaches.

Show Sources

AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION: “What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”
Beyond Blue: “Challenging black and white thinking.”
Clinical-depression: “All of Nothing’, or ‘Black and White’ Thinking and Depression.”
Mayo Clinic: “Narcissistic personality disorder,” “Anxiety & depression,” “Borderline personality disorder,” “Obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Telltale Signs You’re in a Black-and-White Thinking Pattern

tired businessman in office at night typing on laptop

DO YOU FIND yourself thinking in extremes or absolutes? For example, you view everyone you know as good or bad, and every decision you make as all or nothing, and there’s no in-between. If so, you might be in a pattern of black-and-white thinking.

Also known as polarized thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, or dichotomous thinking, black-and-white thinking refers to a habit of thinking in polar opposites without accepting any possibility of a gray area, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

“The way we think is so personal and shaped by our unique lived experiences,” explains Anisha Patel-Dunn, D.O., a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health. “However, polarized thinking is often an unhealthy coping mechanism that can negatively impact our mental health.”

Black-and-white thinking is sometimes a symptom of a personality disorder, like narcissism or borderline personality disorder, as well as eating disorders, depression, or anxiety, according to APA.

Many people engage in black-and-white thinking even when they don’t have a mental health diagnosis. It can have a major impact on your relationships, your ability to succeed, and other aspects of your life, says Christopher Hansen, LPC, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor and clinical supervisor at Thriveworks in San Antonio.

“Thinking that is so rigid and unrealistic can’t help but impact overall life quality,” he says. “People with severe cognitive distortions have a very hard time communicating with society, and many go undiagnosed and treated, which is sad because the treatment is very effective.”

If you find yourself constantly thinking in absolutes, mental health experts explain how it might be affecting you and how you can change your thinking.

What Is Black-and-White Thinking?

Black-and-white thinking refers to a rigid mindset, Hansen says. “It doesn’t allow the person the latitude to see nuances in situations or life in general.”

what is black and white thinking

Getty Images

In other words, you don’t consider gray areas or middle ground.

Dichotomous, or black-and-white, thinking is a cognitive distortion. It prevents you from seeing things for how they usually are, which is nuanced, complex, and always changing, according to APA.

For example, Hansen says dichotomous thinkers might believe they’ll get a speeding ticket if they go one mile over the speed limit, while others realize other factors are at play or that there’s probably some leeway.

“The black-and-white thinker tends to follow rules to the letter,” he explains.

Signs of Black-and-White Thinking

You might be a black-and-white thinker if you catch yourself using these terms often:

Everyone says these things sometimes, of course. But, when you notice that these absolute words come up frequently in your thoughts and conversations, you might be too rigid in your thinking.

Another sign is viewing people or situations in your life as perfect or flawed, saint or sinner, or good or bad, according to Psychology Today.

Who Black-and-White Thinking Affects

Black-and-white thinking is often a learned habit that’s influenced by a mental health condition, trauma, or other factors, Dr. Patel-Dunn says.

black and white thinking signs symptoms

Getty Images

“Just as with any unhealthy coping technique, if it becomes a habit we repeatedly turn to in response to stress, we begin to develop a pattern,” she says. “Without awareness of these thought distortions or understanding the strategies we can use to change them, we may feel like we’re stuck in a loop of these automatic thoughts.”

Dichotomous thinking contributes to anxiety and depressive disorders. It’s also a characteristic of narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, research shows, and eating disorders, where someone might consider certain foods good or bad.

People aren’t always aware of their distorted thinking or that it’s affecting their lives, however, Hansen adds. “Through our upbringing, experiences, relationships, and life in general, the way we think becomes ingrained.”

How Black-and-White Thinking Affects Relationships

Communication is at the heart of relationships of all types. When someone is set in black-and-white thinking, there’s no happy medium when dealing with conflict or other situations, only right or wrong, Hansen says.

“So you can imagine that compromise is very difficult for someone with this type of thinking, and there is never any leeway in most things as it causes them anxiety, depression, anger, and overall angst,” he adds.

This way of thinking might also interfere with someone’s ability to see a situation objectively, so they might overreact or respond inappropriately to stressful or triggering events, Dr. Patel-Dunn says.

Someone might quit a job, end a relationship, or suddenly start viewing someone who was once a friend as a bad person, for instance.

Why It Interferes With Success

Dichotomous thinking is an unhealthy coping strategy, similar to substance abuse or overexercising, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. This can take a toll on your mental well-being.

“When we’re not mentally feeling our best, it can be incredibly challenging to live our lives to the fullest and enjoy the things we’re most passionate about,” she says.

When you have limiting or polarizing views about yourself, like that you’re good or bad at certain things or define your career too narrowly, it can inhibit your ability to accomplish your goals. Research also links black-and-white thinking to perfectionism, which is driven by a fear of failure and often causes emotional distress.

At work, dichotomous thinkers might view their jobs and abilities in a rigid way. This might cause issues with co-workers, who might view dichotomous thinkers as negative, not team players, or not forward-thinking, Hansen says.

How You Can Break Out of Black-and-White Thinking

It can be challenging to change distorted thinking on your own, since you might not even realize you’re doing it.

what is black and white thinking signs symptoms

Getty Images

“One thing people can do on their own is practice catching themselves anytime they feel a mental or physical symptom and then see if they can identify the thought that is causing the anxiety,” Hansen says.

You might need to work with a mental health professional, especially if dichotomous thinking is interfering with your day-to-day functioning, Dr. Patel-Dunn says.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn to question automatic thoughts by recognizing that not all thoughts are true and understanding the root of certain thinking to work through thought distortions, she explains.

“It may feel challenging at first, but our brains can rewire through what’s known as neuroplasticity,” Dr. Patel-Dunn says. “You can train your brain to think differently by practicing new habits repeatedly.”

Basically, you’ll learn to replace negative thoughts with more realistic and healthy ones, Hansen adds. After a couple of months, the new way of thinking becomes your norm.

“Help for cognitive distortions such as black-and-white thinking are very effective and generally available,” he says.

preview for How to Create a Routine for Good Mental Health

Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.