Put an End to Black-and-White Thinking
Learning to recognize black-and-white thinking is key to moving beyond the limiting beliefs that keep you stuck. Let’s examine what it is and how to stop it.
By Becky Mollenkamp, ACC
After working with hundreds of women, femmes, and thems as a mindset coach, I’ve learned that one of the most common “mindset” issues that keep people stuck is what’s called “black-and-white thinking.” (Later in this post, I’ll share some tips for how to stop black and white thinking!)
The tendency to see things as being either this or that, is also called dichotomous or polarized thinking. It’s perhaps the most clear sign that you are experiencing a “limiting belief,” or what psychologists call a “cognitive distortion” or flawed thought pattern.
What is Black-and-White Thinking?
First, “black and white thinking” has nothing to do with color and race. It’s the most common term people use to describe dichotomous thinking, so I’m using the language I expect my readers will know.
That said, I’m thrilled mental health professionals are discussing potentially problematic issues with the term “black and white thinking” and I echo those concerns. That’s why I’ll also use “extreme” or “polarized” thinking in this post.
Polarized thinking is the tendency to rigidly assess something as either good or bad, right or wrong, helpful or hurtful. It’s the type of thought pattern that tricks us into believing our only options are to be a success or a failure, to be loved or to be hated, to have it all figured out or be lost.
An all-or-nothing mindset is one that doesn’t make room for the middle ground. It keeps us from seeing the world as complex, nuanced, and full of shades of gray.
Words that can be red flags for extreme thinking include always, never, impossible, perfect, worst, best, or should.
Most people experience occasional black-and-white thinking, but it can be the norm for some people. The more often you experience either-or thoughts, the more likely you are to harshly judge yourself and others, and quit (projects, relationships, etc.) when things get difficult.
What Causes Black-and-White Thinking?
Black-and-white thinking can be a sign of serious mental health issues including bi-polar disorder, narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. For most people, however, extreme thinking is a learned behavior (and it can be one we develop as a response to trauma).
Some experts believe polarized thinking has its roots in the human’s survival instinct. The more simple our thinking, the more quickly we can respond to a threat. Boiling things down to just two options (this or that), the brain can more easily react (fight, flight, freeze).
I also believe this type of thinking is a direct result of living in a patriarchy. Binary thought is a patriarchal tool that establishes clear rules about what is good and what is bad (male is better than female, white is better than black, rich is better than poor, etc.).
Living in patriarchy normalizes hierarchical, right-or-wrong thinking. It’s not surprising, then, that most of us are conditioned to apply black-and-white thinking to everything in our lives.
Black-and-White Thinking Examples
At its most extreme, polarized thinking is very obvious. “I’ll never find a relationship,” “I’ll always be poor,” or “Reaching my goal is impossible,” are good examples of the most extreme thinking.
More often, though, polarized thoughts are more subtle and sneaky.
They can sound like certain or factual statements — “I’m not qualified for that job” or “I would be horrible at public speaking.”
They may also sound like reasonable questions — “What if I do this and fail?” or “Who would trust what I have to say?”
While they may sound certain or curious, these thoughts don’t stand up to investigation. Either the facts disprove the ideas, or we don’t have evidence that either supports or contradicts them.
Our thoughts and feelings aren’t facts, even if they feel that way. Examining real data is helpful in watching out for polarized thoughts passing as certainty or curiosity.
Black-and-White Thinking vs. Certainty
Once my clients begin to recognize polarized thinking, they eventually ask the same question: “How do I know if I’m certain about something, or if I’m experiencing black-and-white thinking?”
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between your intuition or inner knowing and extreme thinking. Both can feel certain. There’s not an easy answer for making the distinction, but it does become easier as you develop a better understanding of polarized thoughts and get more comfortable with your intuition.
In general, the process of making a decision based on extreme thinking will feel certain and absolute. That same process will feel curious and open to possibilities when it comes from intuition or inner knowing.
After making a decision, one made from black-and-white thoughts will feel likely restrictive and heavy, and lead to regret. A decision based on intuition or your inner knowing is more likely to feel expansive, light, and lead to relief.
Pay attention to these warning signs and eventually you’ll hone your ability to distinguish between extreme thinking and inner knowing.
How to Stop Black-and-White Thinking
The first step is awareness, noticing when you are having polarized thoughts. When they arise, ask yourself “what’s the gray?” These thoughts don’t allow for complexity or nuance, but we know that life is far more complicated than a simple this or that.
Also, it’s important to recognize that humans are fully capable of holding two separate, even disparate, thoughts or feelings at the same time. If you need proof of this duality, just spend time with a child. My kiddo has no problem telling me when he’s feeling both angry and sad at the same time or when he thinks he loves me and finds me frustrating at the same time.
Your brain will tell you that it’s this or that, but how might it be this and that? What if it was both? How might that look? This line of questioning can be helpful when you’re experiencing dichotomous thinking.
Now, let’s look at 10 tools that can be helpful in managing polarized thinking.
1. Seek Therapy: Again, this type of thinking can be symptomatic of a mental health issue. If extreme thinking is regularly and negatively affecting your health, relationships, and mood, you may want to work with a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be particularly effective in dealing with polarized thinking. (Learn the difference between coaching and therapy)
2. List the Possibilities: When you notice you’re locked into two possibilities, write down any other option you can imagine (even if the alternatives seem unlikely or silly). Challenging your narrative can trick the brain into seeing more nuance.
3. Ask What’s True: Byron Katie teaches us to challenge our thoughts by asking, “Is this true?” and “Can I absolutely know that it’s true?” Ask yourself these questions whenever your brain gives you this-or-that options. Also, what evidence do you have to support or refute your belief? Examine the proof beyond your own thoughts and feelings.
4. Watch your Words: Notice all the ways you use binary language, and consciously shift to grayer options. “I am stupid” becomes “I sometimes make mistakes.” “This is the worst” becomes “This could be better.” You may be surprised to see how frequently you use this-or-that language in your everyday life.
5. Practice Mindfulness: It’s difficult to be conscious of your thoughts when you are always busy and rushing. Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis can help you tune into your beliefs, giving you space to really notice them. From there, you can begin to release judgment of them. (Free mindfulness exercises you can do anytime)
6. Be Curious: When you notice yourself having polarized thoughts, you may be tempted to judge them as bad. That’s another example of engaging in polarized thinking! Instead, simply be curious (curiosity vs. judgment). Explore why you’re feeling that way (hint: it’s often a fear), and be compassionate with yourself as you do that exploration.
7. Look for the Best: Extreme thinking gives us only good or bad options, and most of us tend to focus on the negative. That can have us quickly spiral down the rabbit hole of worst-case scenarios. Another way to challenge the thoughts is to consider the best that could happen.
8. Talk Like a Friend: What would you say to a friend who was experiencing these same polarized thoughts—a person trapped in a this-or-that scenario? We can often give to our friends what we can’t give to ourselves, so stepping outside of yourself to think of how you’d speak to another person can help you find the nuance and treat yourself more compassionately.
9. Write it Out: Developing a regular journaling practice is really helpful with becoming aware of and challenging polarized thoughts. It helps you see the thoughts, refute them, and craft a new narrative. My massive journaling prompts bundle can help you get started!
10. Coach Yourself: You don’t have to invest in a coach to get the benefits of coaching. If you can’t yet afford coaching, do the work for yourself using these tips. The self-coaching model, along with asking thought-provoking questions, can help you manage polarized thoughts and feel more empowered.
A final thought: Give yourself time and compassion. Believing you must immediately solve or stop your polarized thinking or you are a failure is just another example of polarized thinking!
The truth is, it has taken you a lifetime to develop this way of thinking, and it will take time to change it. And you live in a world where these thoughts are pervasive, and that doesn’t go away as you do the work. This work will likely last for your lifetime.
The good news: If you challenge your thoughts again and again, and be kind to yourself along the way, then over time you’ll catch the extreme thoughts more quickly and they’ll happen less often.
Black-and-White Thinking Worksheet
Finally, to help you challenge your polarized thoughts, I’ve created a free worksheet you can use whenever you’re locked into two extremes. It walks you through unpacking the current extreme thoughts and then crafting a new, more helpful narrative.