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

It keeps you from seeing the world as it often is: complicated and nuanced.

GaudiLab / Shutterstock
GaudiLab / Shutterstock

Black and white thinking is the tendency to think in extremes: I am a brilliant success, or I am an utter failureMy 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

What it sounds like

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.

How does black and white thinking hurt you?

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.

2017 studyTrusted Source 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.

Is black and white thinking a symptom of other conditions?

Some black and white thinking is normal, but persistent dichotomous thought patterns are associated with a number of conditions.

Narcissism (NPD)

NPD is a condition that causes:

  • an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • a deep need for attention
  • a profound lack of empathy for others

Black and white thinking is one of the symptoms of this personality disorder.

ResearchersTrusted Source have found that the tendency toward dichotomous thinking makes it much harder for people with NPD to get the help they need because they may devalue and discard therapists too quickly.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

The National Institutes of Mental Health describe BPD as a mental illness that causes people to “experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety.”

People with BPD:

  • usually have problems controlling impulses
  • often experience black and white thinking
  • may struggle with interpersonal relationships

In fact, studiesTrusted Source have found that the tendency to think in polar opposites is at the heart of the problems many people with BPD have in their relationships.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Some psychologistsTrusted Source think people who have OCD usually think in all-or-nothing patterns because the ability to put something into a firm category may give them a sense of control over their circumstances.

Dichotomous thinking makes it possible for people to maintain a rigid perfectionism, and that can make it harder to get help.

If a person has a setback, it would be easy to see that as a total failure of therapy instead of viewing it as a momentary hiccup in the overall progression.

Anxiety and depression

People who are vulnerable to anxiety and depression may have a tendency to think in absolutes.

2018 study that examined the natural speech of people with anxiety and depression found much more frequent use of “absolutist” language among them than in control groups.

All-or-nothing thinking can also cause us to ruminate, which can worsen anxiety or depression.

It’s also worth noting that researchersTrusted Source have found a connection between black and white thinking and negative perfectionism.

ResearchersTrusted Source have found black and white thinking is present when people are dealing with anxiety and depression.

Racism and homophobia

It’s been surmised that dichotomous thinking may be at the root of some of our most persistent social divisions.

Racist, transphobic, and homophobic ideologies often fixate on “in” groups and “out” groups in society.

These ideologies tend to involve projecting negative qualities almost exclusively on the “out” group.

Negative stereotypes are typically used to describe members of those groups who they believe are unlike themselves.

What causes black and white thinking? 

Although personality disorders and mental health conditions are sometimes genetic, there isn’t enough research to say conclusively that black and white thinking itself is inherited.

It has, however, been linked to childhood or adult trauma.

Researchers think that when we experience trauma, we may develop dichotomous thinking patterns as a coping strategy or to try to protect ourselves from future harm.

How can you change black and white thinking?

Black and white thinking can really make things difficult for you personally and professionally, and has been linked to mental health conditions that are treatable.

For these reasons, it’s important to talk to a psychotherapist or mental health professional if you notice that thinking in extremes is affecting your health, relationships, or mood.

You may want to work with someone who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapyTrusted Source, because it has been proven effective in dealing with dichotomous thinking.

You may also find it helpful to try some of these methods:

  • Try to separate what you do from who you are. When we equate our performance on a single metric with our overall worth, we’re going to become vulnerable to black and white thinking.
  • Try listing options. If black and white thinking has you locked into only two outcomes or possibilities, as an exercise, write down as many other options as you can imagine. If you’re having trouble getting started, try coming up with three alternatives at first.
  • Practice reality reminders. When you feel paralyzed by black and white thinking, say or write small factual statements, like There are several ways I can solve this problemI’ll make a better decision if I take time to get more information, and Both of us may be partially right.
  • Find out what other people think. Black and white thinking can keep you from seeing things from someone else’s perspective. When you’re in conflict with someone, calmly ask clarifying questions so you can come to a clear understanding of their viewpoint.

The bottom line

Black and white thinking is a tendency to think in extremes. While it’s normal from time to time, developing a pattern of dichotomous thinking can interfere with your health, relationships, and career.

It’s associated with anxiety, depression, and a number of personality disorders, so if you find yourself hampered by thinking in black and white, it’s important to talk to a therapist.

A therapist can help you to learn some strategies to gradually change this thought pattern and live a healthier and more fulfilling life.

Originally published on Healthline.

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