The Dangers of Black and White Thinking


We’ve all witnessed the stalemates and negative repercussions resulting from all-or-nothing stands by unyielding governments. What may be harder to see is how all-or-nothing thinking, also known as polarizing, or black-and-white thinking, can exacerbate the battles we fight within ourselves.

Black and white thinking can be a symptom of multiple mental disorders, including major depression, narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. According to the Depression and Bipolar Alert Alliance, black and white thinking can be highly damaging to self-esteem and is earmarked by negative self-talk in the extreme.

We all tend to pepper our conversations with exaggerations sometimes, in order to make a point or create a more interesting story, but when an individual proclaims a minor mishap to be an irreparable disaster, or believes he is a terrible person with no positive attributes on a consistent basis, this may be indicative of all-or-nothing thinking and a highly emotional, aroused brain.

Limiting possibilities

A cognitive distortion of reality, black and white thinking limits possibility. For example, a man who can’t get a date for Saturday night may believe he will never go out on another date again in his life and therefore, will never get married or father children. A woman recently laid off from work may believe she will never, ever work again and die homeless. This type of thinking eliminates possibility by inhibiting problem solving and makes life untenable, which may further exacerbate depression.  

Fight or Flight

When we are in the throes of deep emotion, it’s hard to think rationally or make calm, reasonable decisions and a pattern of black and white thinking may take hold. This type of thought process has its roots in the fight or flight response your science teacher probably drummed into your head in middle school.

Fight or flight is an instinctual, innate reaction which floods the brain and body with hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and epinephrine, in preparation for surviving a dangerous situation which requires an immediate response. While fight or flight thinking may come in handy if a mastodon (or mugger) is charging at you, it is much less helpful when dealing with your boss, spouse or the traffic cop who just gave you a ticket. Black and white thinking results from an overly extreme level of emotional arousal to everyday situations, as opposed to life or death ones.

Eradicating Black And White Thinking

Remember that it may be depression, or another underlying emotional disorder, which is causing your black and white thinking. Often, talking to a therapist or counselor will help and be an appropriate first step. Whether you seek outside support or not, there are a number of techniques which may help you eliminate black and white thinking. These include:

  • Re-Frame Your Thoughts – Black and white thinking is earmarked by immediacy. Try to give yourself the luxury of a few moments of time to take a deep breath and gently challenge your negative thoughts, actions or words. For example, if you find yourself denigrating your own abilities, try to honestly affirm your attributes as well. This way, “I’m worthless and have no skills” may become “I may not be great at keeping spread sheets but am a pretty darn good cook.” This is not only more realistic, it is also more self-loving. The technique, known as cognitive re-framing, helps to eliminate negative self-talk and increases positive thinking.
  • Search for the Middle Ground – Life (and people) can be challenging, difficult and hard to deal with, but usually not so horrible, and change is impossible. Try to remind yourself that this, too, shall pass and look for the shades of grey which will help a sticky, painful or difficult situation become more tolerable. Speak to others and to yourself from this new-found middle ground and you may be able to reduce the deep emotional intensity which exacerbates black and white thinking.
  • Say Goodbye to Never and Every – Tempering your thoughts and expectations is easier if you banish absolutes from your vocabulary and your life. Instead of saying, “Everyone hates me,” instead say “My neighbor may not like me very much but I have a good relationship with the store clerk.” “I will never be happy,” may become “I am not happy right now but I am doing the best I can.”  This type of realistic thinking helps to create a framework of possibility for the future, reducing anxiety and depression.

Black and white thinking does not manifest itself overnight, nor can it be banished that way. Give yourself time and lots of practice identifying and eliminating negative self-talk and seek support from others who can help, such as a support group, dear friend or professional.