Black and white thinking is also known as all-or-nothing thinking or dichotomous thinking. It is a cognitive distortion that involves viewing the world in extremes or absolutes (Dobson & Dobson, 2017).
People who engage in black and white thinking tend to see things as either completely good or completely bad, with no shades of gray in between. For example, someone who engages in black and white thinking might say "I'm either a success or a failure" or "If I'm not perfect, then I'm a total failure" or "my job is great or absolutely horrible". One may also view other people in extreme terms, such as "My manager is either a saint or a devil" or "This person either all good or all bad."
Black and white thinking can be problematic because it can lead to overly simplistic and rigid thinking patterns. It can also lead to unrealistic expectations, and a tendency to overlook the complexities and in-betweens of real-life situations. This type of thinking can also harm the person as it contributes to negative emotions like anxiety and depression, as people struggle to live up to their own expectations. In this regard, black & white thinking can unknowingly create situations and circumstances of self-sabotage, despite the person's best intentions, diligence and hard work.
To overcome black and white thinking, it can be helpful to practice flexible thinking and try to see situations from multiple perspectives. For example, "My manager seemed to ignore me when we passed each other along the corridor this morning today. My manager being upset with me is just one of several possibilities - there could be other things on their mind or perhaps they're going through something I don't know about. How certain am I that there is one and only one reason for their behaviour this morning?"
Dismantling black & white thinking can involve challenging your own assumptions and beliefs, and being open to the possibility there might be something else going on. In this regard, 'cognitive flexibility' is important. This involves developing the capacity to being open to new information and approaching problems or challenges from various angles rather than viewing situations & circumstances through one self-limiting angle - "This whole situation is doomed, I quit!"
Practicing cognitive flexibility is helpful because it enables the individual to navigate complex environments, adjust to unexpected situations and manage competing demands. Research has also shown that cognitive flexibility can be improved through practicing mindfulness - being in the moment rather than imagining the worst possible outcomes - and cognitive behavioural therapy.
On the surface, 'black & white' thinking might seem like a reasonably manageable phenomenon - but if one is unaware or if it is left unchecked, it has the potential to do a lot of damage to a well intentioned, well-meaning and hardworking individual. Please contact us if you are seeking support in this regard.
Dobson, D., & Dobson, K.S. (2017). Evidence Based Practice of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (2nd Ed.). The Guilford Press.