I catch myself thinking in polarized terms all the time. “He/she always does this” or “this project is great and that project is terrible” or one that I don’t really have a problem with: all cats are perfect!
Black and white thinking happens to be one of the top 16 cognitive distortions that psychologists have outlined. It goes a little something like this:
I always get the short end of the stick or
I perfectly execute everything I do.
We default to black and white thinking because it’s relaxing.
When we categorize life into two opposing categories it becomes easier to decide how we feel about something, whether it’s ourselves, someone else, a company, or virtually anything in the world.
Black and white thinking cultivates an “us vs them mentality” which provides comfort to us so we don’t have to stand alone with a mélange of opinions that don’t fit neatly into one team’s ideology.
Look at the world of politics. Our political system is divided into 2 categories: democrats and republicans.
There are grey areas to both sides but many like to believe a republican is 100% this and a democrat is 100% that when in reality there are many layers to both groups that neither wants to see because it then becomes harder for us to categorize and fit into a neat box in our mind.
Black and white thinking allows us to simply say “It’s like this” or “It’s like that” and that puts the issue to bed. But let’s face it, there is rarely anything that is 100% this or 100% that. Life is comprised of relative truths.
The more we can open up our awareness to the shades the more realistic we can be with our self-perception of our own success or failure.
There are two main steps for counteracting the traps of black and white thinking:
- Catch yourself in the act! If you hear yourself saying or thinking words like “always,” “never,” “horrible,” “impossible,” “perfect” (you get the idea) take a moment to pause and realize what’s happening.
- Ask yourself if the subject in question is 100% how you’re thinking of it. If, for instance, you’re saying, “This employee is terrible” then take a comprehensive look at the employee and see if perhaps there aren’t some good qualities and skills that this person has. It might be that he/she is terrible in one particular area but chances are, he/she is not terrible across the boards. Same goes if you are the subject in question. You are most assuredly not 100% terrible.
For leaders, black and white thinking is a dangerous mental state to be in because it prevents you from seeing the nuances in life, the in between grey areas, which if not seen, will limit your ability to progress, to come up with innovative solutions, to stay curious and creative and dynamic.
And we need these traits the most during stressful times, which are precisely the moments when black and white thinking is likely to strike. Stress has a tendency to activate distorted automatic thinking, of which black and white thinking is just one.
In fact, once you accept a position of leadership, you should make reality testing an ongoing process. Otherwise, you can quickly succumb to illusions that, in the end, will embarrass you or cost you your job.
After every project, sale, presentation, review, difficult conversation, or any other potentially stressful incident, you should ask yourself and, at times, other people involved in the situation:
- What worked?
- What did not work?
- What got in the way of getting desired results?
- What helped me/us achieve desired results?
- What other, perhaps better, ways could I/we have approached the situation?
- What have I/we learned from this situation?
Although this may strike you as a time-consuming task, doing it on a regular basis will help you separate your false assumptions and beliefs from the reality of how others view and react to you, and how you view and react to yourself and the world around you.