Black and white thinking: what it is, why it’s harmful and how to stop

Do you have an all or nothing mentality? How do you describe yourself, other people and situations? How often do you use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, ‘success’ or ‘failure’ and ‘perfect’ or ‘terrible’? These are all signs of black and white thinking.

Some people believe that everything exists in absolutes without considering the possibility for nuance or middle ground – they’re either good or bad, people are amazing or horrible, ideas are right or wrong, etc.

Although everyone does this occasionally, consistently thinking in black and white (also known as dichotomous or polarised thinking) is limiting because the world doesn’t exist in extremes – there are many different perspectives and ways you can feel about or react to situations. Having this mentality can hold you back in a variety of ways, including personal growth, development, relationships, and mental wellbeing.

If you have the habit of thinking in black and white, you can change your thought patterns to adopt a more balanced perspective. This often takes time, effort and commitment, but you can benefit by developing a healthier and less challenging view of yourself and the world around you.

What causes black and white thinking?

Black and white thinking makes life more difficult and causes problems, so why do some people frequently think this way?

Believing the world can be categorised into one of two extremes causes problems, but making decisions is much easier if there are only two possible conclusions to come to. So you can reach a decision much more quickly and easily than if you have to consider many different possibilities.

Being able to quickly make decisions and judgements about your environment is useful when you need to fight for survival, like early humans had to. They could react to threats and opportunities without wasting much time; their conclusions weren’t always right, but they were fast and helped prevent death or missed opportunities.

Our brains continue to reward making these types of judgements by releasing dopamine, a chemical that makes people feel pleased and rewarded. But in today’s modern world, quickly coming to a polarised judgement is likely to cause more harm than good. Reducing your options down to two when there could be many more limits your possibilities and greatly increases your chances of being wrong.

English speakers are also guided by vocabulary to communicate in extreme judgements and reactions. There are many words to describe dramatic feelings or exceptional events, but far fewer words that convey falling in the middle ground. The words that describe these feelings and experiences are often vague and uninteresting and could be applied to a number of situations and emotional responses. For example, if you aren’t feeling completely calm but you’re not anxious either, what emotion are you feeling – fine, alright, okay? People tend to feel not only more interesting, but also more descriptive when they re-tell events or explain things using dramatic language.

Engaging in black and white thinking is appealing because it’s how our brains and the English language directs people to think and communicate. However, it has a number of disadvantages.

There are many consequences for black and white thinking

How does black and white thinking affect your everyday life? What are the drawbacks of this type of mentality? What challenges do black and white thinkers face?

There are a variety of consequences for thinking in black and white. What they are depends on the person and their situation, but the most common include:

1) Many of your judgements will be inaccurate

Black and white thinking encourages making quick judgements based on very little information while ignoring many possible explanations or perspectives. So when you come to a polarised conclusion, chances are high that what you’ve determined is wrong. Most things in life – people, situations, opinions, beliefs and more – aren’t one extreme or the other; they belong somewhere in the middle, and black and white thinking tells you to ignore all of these possibilities.

Unless you’re corrected or called out for being wrong, you can believe that your assumptions are accurate when they’re not. This could be thinking your colleague hates you, your friend’s political beliefs are disgusting, or that the holiday you planned will be perfect. There’s likely some truth to what you believe, but the reality isn’t as one-sided as you think. If you continue believing something that isn’t true, you won’t always be making the best decisions or acting appropriately in that area of your life.

Being open to various possibilities, instead of just one extreme or the other, means that you can have a more accurate image of yourself, others and different perspectives.

2) People tend to lean towards negativity when making judgements

Not only are the judgements you come to if you think in black and white more likely to be wrong, but they’re also more likely to be negative.

Another way early evolution continues to affect us is through the negativity bias. This refers to peoples’ inherent tendency to pay more attention to negative feedback and information that suggests danger. When survival was difficult and there were many threats, this bias was helpful. It made people less likely to take risks, because they focused on all the potential consequences, and more attuned to signs of danger, such as quickly losing interest in something enjoyable to pay attention to a threatening sound.

Even though there are very few life-threatening dangers in today’s modern world, people are still more affected by negative information and feedback. If you get five compliments on a presentation you made at work but one colleague was slightly critical, you’ll almost certainly be more affected by their criticisms.

People who think in black and white are prone to being affected by negativity bias because they often make judgements quickly and with little reflection. And when you’re choosing between two extremes, picking the cautious option often feels more appealing.

3) You’ll have an inaccurate view of yourself

People who think in black and white also apply this mentality to how they think about themselves. Black and white thinkers can only believe they’re good or bad, perfect or a failure, right or wrong, etc. Regardless of which way they view themselves – positively or negatively – what they believe will be inaccurate and cause problems.

Because of the negativity bias, polarised thinking means you’re more likely to have a negative view of yourself. When your only options are being perfect or a failure, and perfection doesn’t exist, black and white thinking means you’re more likely to feel like failure.

Additionally, black and white thinkers tend to ignore their strengths because they don’t think they outweigh their weaknesses enough to allow them to feel good about themselves. But this isn’t an accurate way to think about strengths and weaknesses – you can be alright at something and still take pride in your skill level, especially if you’re learning. And you can recognise that you’re not very good at something without believing that this makes you less valuable or accomplished as a person.

Believing you’re perfect isn’t healthy either – people who think they’re perfect ignore their flaws and weaknesses, don’t learn from their mistakes, and treat people badly because they don’t acknowledge the need for self-reflection or changing. While they may be happy with themselves while they have this view, there is a high likelihood that their decisions and repeated mistakes will eventually have consequences, such as getting fired from a job where they ignore feedback, being left by a partner they unwittingly mistreat, or let go from a team where they think they’re the star player.

People are happier and have better experiences when they don’t think of themselves as a failure or as perfect, but realise they’re somewhere in between.

4) You’re less likely to work on improving

People who think in black and white typically believe – consciously or unconsciously –that their traits, skills and abilities are set rather than changeable. So if they naturally aren’t naturally good at something, they think they never will be so they don’t try to improve. This is known as having a fixed mindset.

Being a black and white thinker and having a fixed mindset are two different types of thought patterns, but they have a lot in common, especially labelling yourself as successful or a failure. Not all black and white thinkers believe they’re incapable of learning new skills, but it’s common for them to feel like a failure when they do poorly at something, which discourages them from trying again.

If you think that no matter how hard you work at something you’ll never improve, you’re unlikely to try building new skills or improving your weaknesses. There are many different skill levels people can have and be proud of, and if you think you have to be excellent at things before you should do them, you’ll struggle to expand and improve what you’re capable of. This is a limiting and disempowering belief that deprives you of feeling in control of your life.

5) Black and white thinking can cause perfectionism

Perfectionists and black and white thinkers both believe there isn’t any middle ground when it comes to success and failure.

Perfectionism the belief that if you try hard enough, you can produce results that are beyond criticism. But this isn’t true – you can never act or make something perfect enough that no one will find fault. The idea of being able to avoid criticism through hard work and self-control is highly appealing, but it’s impossible.

As well as chasing an impossible goal, perfectionism keeps you from trying things you aren’t sure you’ll be good at because if you don’t do well on the first try, you’ll think of yourself as a failure.

Black and white thinking and perfectionism enable each other and they both detract from your mental health.

6) Relationships are unstable

Black and white thinking doesn’t only affect you – it also makes relationships unstable because you can’t have an accurate view of other people if you believe they have to fit into polarised categories.

No one is entirely good or bad, loveable or unlovable, or has beliefs that are right or wrong. But black and white thinking tells you that you have to categorise people into these types of groups so you’ll be hypervigilant for proof of how you should think of them. This often means waiting for people to make mistakes, exaggerating what their bad moments mean, or ignoring ways they act badly mistreat you.

Not only does this create a judgemental environment, but it also prevents stability and in many cases, a foundation of trust, which is essential to healthy relationships. If you alternate between thinking the people in your life are wonderful or horrible and treating them accordingly, you’ll struggle to trust them and they’ll have a hard time trusting you because you’re inconsistent. You’re also unlikely to feel comfortable being yourself, which is necessary to feeling secure and happy with the people in your life.

Believing polarised categorisations of the people you’re close to will keep relationships from evolving and becoming healthy, which makes the relationships far less enjoyable for the people involved in them.

7) You’re more likely to over-react

Black and white thinking tends to make people have strong reactions that to others seem out of proportion.

Because black and white thinking makes you believe that if you aren’t completely successful you’ve failed, even small setbacks can make a plan feel derailed. But what black and white thinkers often struggle to realise is that things can still work out even if there are ways they could have could have gone better. You could have given a good job interview even if there were a few times when you stumbled over your words, a party can still be a success even if a few people left early, and you can have a strong friendship with someone even after learning they have some beliefs you disagree with.

If you think that small setbacks or unwelcome news always means the worst, you can take rash actions where they weren’t necessary, such as up quitting a job because of one unfavourable review, ending a relationship because of a fight, or giving up a goal because you aren’t doing well enough. Acting in the moment can feel justified and rewarding, but if it was based on an inaccurate polarised judgement, then you’re likely to regret your actions later.

If you’re flexible in what you think of as a good outcome by acknowledging that there’s room for middle-ground and are happy to accept results that are less than perfect, you don’t have to over-react to small problems

How to stop black and white thinking

Because black and white thinking is a pattern of beliefs, and beliefs can be challenged and changed, it’s possible to break the habit of black and white thinking.

You can start by recognising when you’re thinking in extremes. If you’re used to automatically categorising information and people into one of two binary groups, you probably do this far more often than you realise so you’ll need to pay close attention to notice the daily judgements you make. Try to catch yourself jumping to conclusions and believing that things must be one way or another so you can challenge these thoughts. Paying attention to your vocabulary and being alert for all-or-nothing terms and phrases can make this easier. Also question what you’re telling yourself others think about you if you catch yourself imagining people are judging you harshly.

When you can catch yourself thinking in black and white, question your beliefs. What makes you think you’re a failure? Are you being overly critical of a friend’s perspective or are they making some good points along with having beliefs you disagree with? Explore what can exist between polarised categories. You can be alright at something without feeling like a failure and respect a friend for how they treat animals but wish they were more environmentally conscious.

As you do this, practice compassion with yourself and others while also enforcing your boundaries.

Being compassionate with yourself isn’t unconditionally forgiving yourself for your mistakes and bad behaviour, but being understanding when you act in ways you aren’t proud of. You take responsibility, but you don’t tell yourself you’re an idiotic failure. Instead of expecting yourself to be perfect, you recognise that you’re human and you made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean you need to think of yourself as terrible.

You can be compassionate with others by giving them the benefit of the doubt when possible. You might not be happy with a colleague who let you take the blame for their mistake, but that doesn’t mean you should think of them as a scheming backstabber who will always be your enemy either. Instead of believing they’re an irredeemably bad person, consider less harsh explanations for their behaviour: they’re new and worried about losing their job, or they didn’t mean for you to be blamed when they gave their version of what happened.

Give yourself more than two options in how to assess or feel about a situation. They may not come naturally, so mindfully consider how you could react and what feels like an accurate assessment.

As you’re working on changing your reaction, reflect on why you want to believe that making polarised judgements is the most appropriate reaction. This can help you understand where your perspectives come from so you can further consider what drives your beliefs and though patterns.

Professional treatment, especially Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), is proven to be an effective approach to treating for black and white thinking because it gets you to challenge your thoughts and suggests more rewarding and healthier alternatives to your old patterns of beliefs. Although you can challenge your patterns of beliefs on your own, many people find that working with a professional makes the process much easier and more efficient.

As you work on breaking the habit of polarised thinking – with a professional or on your own – notice your progress and look for signs of improvement. This will give you motivation to keep making these positive changes. You won’t get results right away, but if you’re committed and have a good approach, in time adopting a nuanced perspective will come more and more naturally.

black and white thinking, how to stop black and white thinking,

You can feel like there are only two possibilities, but this is rarely true

How you think about yourself and the world around you has a powerful effect on your mental health. If you believe that everyone and everything must be categorised into one of two extremes, you’re making life more difficult and less enjoyable than it would be if you were willing to accept nuance and middle ground.

But you can be happier by changing how you judge people and reconsidering your more extreme beliefs. Like all forms of worthwhile self-improvement, this takes commitment, time and hard work, but there are many rewards.

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