What is black and white thinking & why should we consider shifting our perspective onto the grey? (Therapist Advice)

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Black and white thinking is the tendency to see things as all-or-nothing, things are either good or bad, right or wrong. We will all be able to recognise this type of thinking from time to time.

Thinking errors happen when our thoughts and reality don’t match up. Therapists usually call them distortions or extreme types of thinking. Other types of thinking distortions you might have come across include mental filtering, jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, emotional reasoning and personalisation.

It becomes a problem when we consistently swing between these two ends of the spectrum, skipping over the grey area (or I actually prefer to see the middle areas as a spectrum of different colours), and regularly use it to describe ourselves, our relationships, our predictions about our futures and our descriptions of our everyday.

Examples of black and white thinking include;

“Things will never get better”

“I will always have this problem”

“I will always fail at work”

“ I will never makes friends”

“I will never fall in love”

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What is the impact of this all-or-nothing type thinking?

They are faulty patterns of thinking that are self-defeating, meaning it’s possible to get caught in a loop of negative thinking.

It can stop you from trying in a relationship for a new job, and in turn becomes a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy.

If we look at the world, ourselves or others through a black and white lens, all-or-nothing or dichotomous way, it can have a negative effect on the way we feel about these things, and the language we use to describe them (to others or in our heads). It can give us a distorted perspective and trigger extreme or unhelpful thinking. 

The way we talk to ourselves can have a big impact on the way we feel. Why? Because we are listening!

If you are dealing with anxiety, an extreme negative, self-critical, or unkind perspective on something can really magnify our fearful predictions, activate the fight or flight stress response and leave us feelings more anxious. 

If you are dealing with depression, an extreme perspective of yourself, others behaviours or about the world can feel incredibly bullying and pull your mood further down. Thinking in absolutes, extreme negative thoughts such as ‘I must be boring’, ’people will think I’m stupid’ or ‘nothing ever goes my way’, if left un-challenged can exacerbate our low mood.

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CBT therapists can help you to take helpful steps to recognise and change this type of extreme thinking. Learning not to always thinking in all-or-nothing, black-and-white terms and to consider the areas between can be immensely helpful in managing anxiety and depression.

It is important to initially start to recognise and label the back and white patterns of thinking and explore how dipping your toe into the grey a little more regularly can really help.

Recognise when it is happening. The first step is to try to notice this type of thinking style when it happens. Label it as a thought ’there is another extreme thought / black and white way of seeing things / dichotomous way of seeing myself’.

Taking a step back and observing the thoughts helps us to start to distance ourselves from them a little. It helps us to be able to look at them from a different perspective, rather than just listening to them and automatically responding to them.

Then it would be worth taking a moment to write the most common of these thoughts down. 

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Look at the thoughts differently. The next step is to find a time when the emotional response to them has somewhat subsided, and challenge it.

Consider the thought from a more fact based perspective.


Questions you could ask yourself to help find the middle perspectives.

  • What evidence have you got to back that extreme belief up there? Write down evidence that contradicts the automatic thought.

  • Can you dispute that extreme version of events with contrary evidence.

  • What is between those two extremes?  

  • If that is the worst way of looking at it, what is the extreme positive?

  • NOW, what is the most fair, realistic or fact based perspective. 

Becoming less rigid in our thinking allows us to examining the validity of black and white style thinking.

Black and white thought - “I will always fail at work”

Realistic response - “If I put in the effort I could probably by more successful".

Most of life events are not 'completely disastrous' or 'absolutely wonderful' but contain elements of both good and bad. There are many, many shades of grey which we might be discounting completely.

Take a bit of time to consider a range of them and bring them forwards, shout them a little louder when the black or extreme negative end of the perspective starts to take charge. 

Online CBT Therapist - Lisa Johnston

Lisa Johnston

CBT Therapist.

Director of My Therapist Online

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