The Perils of Black-and-White Thinking

Dr. Paula Durlofsky gives four ways to combat all-or-nothing thinking.


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Black-and-white thinking—also known as polarized or all-or-nothing thinking—occurs when we process people and circumstances as either “all good ” or “all bad.” In such a mindset, tasks must be done in a certain way and lead to a specific outcome. When those lofty expectations aren’t met, black-and-white thinkers often see themselves as failures and are unable to put any sort of positive spin on their efforts. Disappointed by their own behavior or that of others, they quickly become upset.

Black-and-white thinkers often misunderstand others, and it’s not uncommon for them to struggle in relationships. They might say things like,  “I’m a failure,” “He’s perfect at everything he does, unlike me,” and “I’m unlucky all the time.” It’s an oversimplified version of life. And the more polarized our thinking, the more vulnerable we are to depression, mood swings and anxiety. Some studies even suggest that black-and-white thinking is a remnant of our instinctual “fight or flight” reflex. After all, there really is no room for uncertainty when faced with a life-threatening situation. Such physical and emotional arousal leaves us feeling emotionally wound-up, inhibiting the ability to think and act rationally.

In truth, most events aren’t completely horrible or completely wonderful. They fall somewhere in the middle—in life’s gray zone. Slowing down to think and feel in the gray zone can be immensely helpful in countering distress and intense emotional stimulation. Black-and-white thinking puts pressure on us to make snap decisions. But when we allow ourselves to sit back and process things in a “maybe this”/”maybe that” fashion, the pressure is lifted. Clearer thinking is the result, helping us devise more constructive real-life options for solving life’s many challenges.
Four strategies for changing black and-white thinking:

  1. Be conscious of the words you use to describe or express your feelings. “Always,” “impossible,” “ruined,” “never,” “perfect,” “terrible” and “disastrous” are absolutes and not at all helpful in understanding relationships or situations that are dynamic , complex and grounded in reality.
  2. Work on becoming less rigid in your thinking. Challenge your thoughts. Ask yourself,  “Is it possible to be a generally intelligent person but not proficient in everything?” or, “Can what I’m facing be difficult now but get better in time?”
  3. Accept the fact that no one is perfect. We’re all human; we all make mistakes. Try to see the value in learning from those mistakes.
  4. Learn to physically relax and cognitively slow down. Black-and-white thinking spikes when emotions are high. Relaxation techniques like slow breathing help to curb emotional arousal, allowing our more rational selves to take over.