DO YOU FIND yourself thinking in extremes or absolutes? For example, you view everyone you know as good or bad, and every decision you make as all or nothing, and there’s no in-between. If so, you might be in a
pattern of black-and-white thinking.
Also known as polarized thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, or dichotomous thinking, black-and-white thinking refers to a habit of thinking in polar opposites without accepting any possibility of a gray area, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
“The way we think is so personal and shaped by our unique lived experiences,” explains Anisha Patel-Dunn, D.O., a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health. “However, polarized thinking is often an unhealthy coping mechanism that can negatively impact our mental health.”
Black-and-white thinking is sometimes a symptom of a personality disorder, like narcissism or borderline personality disorder, as well as eating disorders, depression, or anxiety, according to APA.
Many people engage in black-and-white thinking even when they don’t have a mental health diagnosis. It can have a major impact on your relationships, your ability to succeed, and other aspects of your life, says Christopher Hansen, LPC, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor and clinical supervisor at Thriveworks in San Antonio.
“Thinking that is so rigid and unrealistic can't help but impact overall life quality,” he says. “People with severe cognitive distortions have a very hard time communicating with society, and many go undiagnosed and treated, which is sad because the treatment is very effective.”
If you find yourself constantly thinking in absolutes, mental health experts explain how it might be affecting you and how you can change your thinking.
Black-and-white thinking refers to a rigid mindset, Hansen says. “It doesn’t allow the person the latitude to see nuances in situations or life in general.”
In other words, you don’t consider gray areas or middle ground.
Dichotomous, or black-and-white, thinking is a cognitive distortion. It prevents you from seeing things for how they usually are, which is nuanced, complex, and always changing, according to APA.
For example, Hansen says dichotomous thinkers might believe they’ll get a speeding ticket if they go one mile over the speed limit, while others realize other factors are at play or that there’s probably some leeway.
“The black-and-white thinker tends to follow rules to the letter,” he explains.
Signs of Black-and-White Thinking
You might be a black-and-white thinker if you catch yourself using these terms often:
Everyone says these things sometimes, of course. But, when you notice that these absolute words come up frequently in your thoughts and conversations, you might be too rigid in your thinking.
Another sign is viewing people or situations in your life as perfect or flawed, saint or sinner, or good or bad, according to Psychology Today.
Who Black-and-White Thinking Affects
Black-and-white thinking is often a learned habit that’s influenced by a mental health condition, trauma, or other factors, Dr. Patel-Dunn says.
“Just as with any unhealthy coping technique, if it becomes a habit we repeatedly turn to in response to stress, we begin to develop a pattern,” she says. “Without awareness of these thought distortions or understanding the strategies we can use to change them, we may feel like we’re stuck in a loop of these automatic thoughts.”
Dichotomous thinking contributes to anxiety and depressive disorders. It’s also a characteristic of narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, research shows, and eating disorders, where someone might consider certain foods good or bad.
People aren’t always aware of their distorted thinking or that it’s affecting their lives, however, Hansen adds. “Through our upbringing, experiences, relationships, and life in general, the way we think becomes ingrained.”
How Black-and-White Thinking Affects Relationships
Communication is at the heart of relationships of all types. When someone is set in black-and-white thinking, there’s no happy medium when dealing with conflict or other situations, only right or wrong, Hansen says.
“So you can imagine that compromise is very difficult for someone with this type of thinking, and there is never any leeway in most things as it causes them anxiety, depression, anger, and overall angst,” he adds.
This way of thinking might also interfere with someone’s ability to see a situation objectively, so they might overreact or respond inappropriately to stressful or triggering events, Dr. Patel-Dunn says.
Someone might quit a job, end a relationship, or suddenly start viewing someone who was once a friend as a bad person, for instance.
Why It Interferes With Success
Dichotomous thinking is an unhealthy coping strategy, similar to substance abuse or overexercising, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. This can take a toll on your mental well-being.
“When we’re not mentally feeling our best, it can be incredibly challenging to live our lives to the fullest and enjoy the things we’re most passionate about,” she says.
When you have limiting or polarizing views about yourself, like that you’re good or bad at certain things or define your career too narrowly, it can inhibit your ability to accomplish your goals. Research also links black-and-white thinking to perfectionism, which is driven by a fear of failure and often causes emotional distress.
At work, dichotomous thinkers might view their jobs and abilities in a rigid way. This might cause issues with co-workers, who might view dichotomous thinkers as negative, not team players, or not forward-thinking, Hansen says.
How You Can Break Out of Black-and-White Thinking
It can be challenging to change distorted thinking on your own, since you might not even realize you’re doing it.
“One thing people can do on their own is practice catching themselves anytime they feel a mental or physical symptom and then see if they can identify the thought that is causing the anxiety,” Hansen says.
You might need to work with a mental health professional, especially if dichotomous thinking is interfering with your day-to-day functioning, Dr. Patel-Dunn says.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn to question automatic thoughts by recognizing that not all thoughts are true and understanding the root of certain thinking to work through thought distortions, she explains.
“It may feel challenging at first, but our brains can rewire through what's known as neuroplasticity,” Dr. Patel-Dunn says. “You can train your brain to think differently by practicing new habits repeatedly.”
Basically, you’ll learn to replace negative thoughts with more realistic and healthy ones, Hansen adds. After a couple of months, the new way of thinking becomes your norm.
“Help for cognitive distortions such as black-and-white thinking are very effective and generally available,” he says.
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.