Why Black And White Thinking Harms Your Perspective

Black and white thinking (also known as “all-or-nothing thinking”) describes the tendency to think in extremes. Good or bad. Pretty or ugly. Success or failure. But this way of thinking often leads to mental and emotional problems.

Thinking in black and white is the tendency to look at things in extremes. Someone is fat or thin. We are failures or winners. A person is good or bad. Something either always happens or it never happens. So there is no gray, no middle, no average.

It’s important to understand that our life mainly takes place between these extremes. You are not a total failure, nor do you always do everything right. Your partner is not a selfish asshole, nor an angel who always gets everything right. And your life is not perfect, but at the same time, everything is not bad.

Of course, it’s easier for us to think in terms of categories: good or bad, intelligent or stupid, success or failure, fat or thin, always or never, everything or nothing. But these extremes do not describe reality. The reality is in the vast majority of cases somewhere in between.

For examplenobody is 100% good nor 100% bad. Even the greatest tyrant in this world has a good side and treats certain people with love and respect. In the same way, every “good” person has a dark side.

It is often not easy to accept that our life takes place between extremes. Instead, we want things to be simple. We want clarity. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Happy or unhappy. Success or failure.

Black and white thinking is ultimately our mind’s attempt to simplify our complex world.

This way of thinking leads to a lot of problems. For example, there is a lot of space between doing a sport every day or never doing a sport at all. When you’re caught up in black and white thinking, you either go to the gym every day or you give up completely. Instead of allowing yourself to exercise once or twice a week, it’s all or nothing for you.

Depicting basic tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy — photo from Wikimedia Commons

According to cognitive behavioral therapy, our thoughts significantly influence our feelings, meaning that we feel the same way we think. And that’s why thinking in black and white often leads to negative feelings. By thinking in black and white, you can conclude your worth as a person or the quality of your entire life from a one-off event.

For example, if you make a mistake and inductively conclude that you are always doing everything wrong, you feel like a failure and useless. Or if someone disrespects you and you conclude that everyone is always disrespectful to you, you feel worthless.

A one-time thing quickly becomes always, never, all, or nothing:

  • I always do everything wrong.
  • I can do nothing.
  • I will never make it.
  • Everybody except me can do everything better.

Modern psychology has shown that thinking in black and white often leads to psychological stress. Some well-known psychologists therefore also refer to the whole thing as a mistake in thinking or dysfunctional thinking. Black and white thinking is also increasingly common in people with depression and borderline personality disorder.

Photo by Keenan Constance from Pexels

Below are some of your life areas that suffer from black and white thinking.

Your self-esteem

Your inner critic loves black and white thinking:

  • Are you making a mistake? Then you are a total failure who always gets everything wrong.
  • Are your child’s school grades around a 5? You must be a wicked mother who has failed at all levels of parenting.
  • Your date didn’t answer for two days? You must be very unattractive and you will surely remain lonely for the rest of your life.

If you often think in black and white, you will judge yourself sharply for any mistake, deal poorly with criticism from others, cope with your failures poorly, and doubt yourself too much. And all of this, of course, is detrimental to your self-esteem.

A healthy relationship with yourself starts with self-acceptance and self-esteem. But that’s hardly possible as long as you think in extremes.

Your success

To be successful — no matter in which area of ​​life — means that mistakes, setbacks, and failures are part of it. The most successful people are those who have failed more often than those who have never failed at all.

The more mistakes, setbacks, and failures you experience, the more you learn and thus you find out even more what doesn’t work and what does help you.

However, by thinking in black and white you will criticize yourself harshly for mistakes, setbacks, and failures, and you may see yourself as a failure. But that means you lack the motivation to continue and stay on the ball in the long term.

Your relationships

Hardly anything is more important in life than the quality of our relationships. Whether partners, friends, family, or work colleagues — our fellow human beings have an enormous influence on our well-being.

Ιn every human relationship, there are conflicts, disagreements, and often disappointments. Ιf thinking in black and white you quickly tend to label people as evil, selfish, or heartless. And that’s a big problem both for you and those around you.

Originally posted on Medium