Nothing is ever black and white, and that's okay


“My significant other is amazing” when you receive a compliment, then “My significant other is awful” when he makes a complaint?


Welcome to the world of black & white thinking. You may also know it as all or nothing thinking or polarized thinking. These are all common phrases that address a particular type of cognitive distortion that has you thinking in extremes.

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And unfortunately, these extreme thoughts can make it very difficult to:


Complete your workHave peaceful relationshipsForgive yourselfWork with othersNegatively affect physical and emotional health


Why does something seemingly so small have such detrimental effects?


Because life is actually filled with shades of gray.


I’ve struggled with black và white thinking pretty much all of my life, and I’ll be honest: changing this style of cognitive distortion hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely improving my life in a ton of different ways. Unfortunately, I suffer from some mental illnesses that exacerbates the tendency to fall into black and white thinking pretty easily.


(This article contains tiếp thị liên kết links. For more information, read my disclosure.) 


What is Black and White Thinking?


Black & white thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking or all-or-nothing thinking, is the inability to lớn bring together both positive & negative perceptions of the self, others, or circumstances into a realistic, whole view.


People who struggle with black or white cognitive distortions often think in extremes, believing something is all good or all bad without a middle ground.


It is not uncommon for individuals who struggle with black or white thinking khổng lồ swing from one extreme perception to lớn the other. This tendency causes challenges in how one perceives themselves, instability in relationships, & can cause mood swings.


Blackand trắng Thinking Examples


Negative emotions can span from a lot of different types of cognitive distortions. But which ones specifically revolve around black và white thought patterns?


Luckily, there are frequently used phrases that tend to come along with all or nothing thinking.





Words that may indicate you are dealing with this particular distortion include:


AlwaysNeverImpossibleRuinedFailurePerfectShouldOught ToDisaster


Another indication of black and white thinking is that you may find yourself believing people/circumstances/careers are all good or all bad. If something results in a good result/attitude/feeling, you may find yourself discounting potential bad things. Và vice versa, if something results in a bad result/attitude/feeling, you may find that you tend lớn discount positive things.


How Black & White Thinking Harms You


Black & white thinking can cause a lot of challenges in different situations, such as jobs, relationships with others, learning new information, and your own self-confidence.


Believing circumstances are all good or all bad, or something is all or nothing, can put you in precarious situations. It can negatively cloud judgment, which prevents you from seeing reality clearly.


For instance, you may think a boyfriend is all good because he wants lớn be with you- but he yells and manipulates at you. Black & white thinking may make it more challenging to lớn leave this type of relationship.


You loved your job until that awful new coworker started. Now everything about work is bad, & you think the only solution is to lớn quit your job.


You are funny, creative, và smart- but have some difficulty completing work on time. Black và white thinking causes you a lot of pain & grief. You honestly believe that you aren’t good at anything, which causes you to lớn feel hopeless và depressed.


In all of these circumstances, grey thinking can help you look at obstacles & challenges a bit more objectively.


Why vì chưng I Have Black and White Thinking?


Black & white cognitive distortions can come from a lot of different sources, including:


Mental illness & personality disordersChildhood traumaAdult traumaBullyingGrowing up with a narcissistic parent


Likely, there are other sources that create a tendency toward black and white thinking beyond just this list. If you find yourself identifying with black and white thought processes listed in the signs section, consider reaching out to lớn a therapist or mental health professional for more accurate guidance and diagnosis.


The good news is that you can modify your black and white thinking. If this type of cognitive distortion leans toward all or nothing, you can learn how lớn use ‘grey’ thinking instead.


How to Change Black and White Thinking


What is grey thinking? Grey thinking is the in-between spectrum of black or white.


In other terms, always và never becomes ‘sometimes’. All or nothing becomes ‘some’. Perfect or imperfect become ‘good at some things, bad at others’.


Basically, incorporating grey thinking teaches you khổng lồ utilize the often quite wide spectrum that separates the black and white.


Here are some helpful exercises that help you identify black & white cognitive distortions as well as helping you transition toward grey thinking.


And remember, as with any new mental health skill, you won’t change your lifelong problems overnight. Practice, forgive yourself when you slip back into old patterns, and try your best.


Practice Mindfulness


It’s super important to lớn address your thoughts without judgment. A lot of people who have black & white thinking are often aware of this tendency và probably feel bad or guilty about it. While it’s understandable, feeling bad & guilty unfortunately doesn’t fix the problem.


Practicing mindfulness regularly can help you tune into your thoughts, your body toàn thân sensations, and work past your difficulties a little more easily. When you try khổng lồ push away your cognitive distortions, you probably find them just come roaring back with force. Being mindful can help you learn how khổng lồ cope with your thoughts without needing khổng lồ engage with them.


Ways you can practice mindfulness include:





For more mindful activities, kiểm tra out this super helpful resource from Positive Psychology with lots of different ideas. It may take some practice khổng lồ find the specific exercise that helps you out, so keep trying & have patience.


Make a các mục of Other Possibilities


Often black và white thinking comes from not thinking of other perspectives by hyper-focusing on one particular narrative. One way you can challenge this is by listing other possibilities instead, while focusing on narratives that are neutral or positive.


So, for example, a friend cancels plans with you last minute. Your narrative instantly shifts khổng lồ “My friend doesn’t want lớn spend time with me”.


Listing other possibilities for this scenario could include:


“My friend got sick”“My friend had khổng lồ go into work”“They accidentally double-booked their scheduled”“They have no money to vày the activity we planned”“Their energy isn’t as good as they were hoping”“They had a last-minute plan change”“A long lost family thành viên came over”


The best trick is with listing possibilities is khổng lồ shift the focus outside of yourself or khổng lồ imagine yourself in their shoes.

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Oftentimes the black & white thinking narrative tends khổng lồ be negative- you find yourself imagining a worst case scenario possibility in your head. So another way to lớn challenge your cognitive distortion is lớn come up with a ‘best case scenario’.


In a way, you are momentarily shifting to the other extreme, but sometimes this shift can help you khổng lồ think a bit more realistically và recognize that you are thinking in black và white.


Do You Have Proof?


This one has you challenge your black and white thoughts directly by allowing you to ask yourself “Do I have proof that this circumstance is black/white?”


Questions to lớn ask yourself:


Is it true? If yes, has this circumstance actually happened before?Am I relying on súc tích or emotions?Have I ever been able to lớn work through a similar situation? If yes, how?


If you find that your answers:


Aren’t trueRelying on emotions


You may want to lớn try the các mục of possibilities exercise or the best case scenario exercise.


Otherwise, if you have worked through similar situations in the past, can you use your experience to lớn help guide you through your circumstance.


Get Clarification


When your black và white thinking distortions cloud your judgment, one really easy way to get back to lớn reality is to just ask if it’s true.


Now, the trick with getting clarification is to lớn word it in a way that helps the other person not get defensive.


For instance, you are having difficulty with a coworker. Chances are asking “Do you hate me?” or “Why are you such a jerk?” is not going to lớn lead you to lớn any helpful conclusion.


One way khổng lồ get clarification would be khổng lồ ask “Hey, coworker, sometimes when I work with you, I feel like you are short with me when we talk and I wonder if I may be irritating you. Is this true?”


You can’t control other people & they may get defensive or not provide a helpful answer anyway. Remember that only you can control yourself. But by asking in this manner, you will more likely have these outcomes.


You could get clarification on what is causing their behaviorThey may address the specific problem they haveBoth of you can work toward a better solution 


Now, you can’t always guarantee you can get clarification from somebody else, as the only person you can only control is yourself. But it is an option, và one that can help if the other individual is willing to lớn listen, cooperate, & work toward a solution.


Shift ‘Black và White Words’ khổng lồ ‘Grey Words’


Remember that danh sách earlier that discussed commonly used words when it comes lớn black và white thinking?


Instead of those words, consider trying lớn substitute these words and phrases below:


SometimesI’m noticing that…I’m willing to…I don’t like this circumstanceI prefer something differentI’m flexible enough to…


Also, another trick is to modify how you express your thoughts và feelings.


Instead of saying “This IS a disaster”, try saying “I’m having the feeling that this a disaster”.


Instead of thinking “She is perfect”, try saying “I’m having the thoughts that she is perfect”.


This little tactic is called diffusing. When you change something from ‘this is’ to ‘I’m having the thought/feeling’, you’re acknowledging what is real… the thought or feeling. Thoughts and feelings are always valid, và it’s important lớn acknowledge them.


One really helpful book I love that clarifies this concept is called . Based on acceptance & commitment therapy it teaches a lot of helpful measures khổng lồ help giảm giá khuyến mãi with chronic stress. The book taught me khổng lồ become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.


What Would You Say lớn a Friend


When our black & white thinking involves ourselves, often we are the least kind and forgiving toward ourselves. As a result of trauma or mental illness, we constantly berate và are unforgiving toward our circumstances.


One tip my therapist gave me that I find really helpful is lớn imagine what you would say lớn a friend going through the EXACT same situation. Chances are you would be kind và forgiving toward them, yes, but what would you actually say to lớn them? Journal it out or talk out loud, figure out what you would say/do differently, then apply the knowledge lớn yourself!


What Have You Done Right?


Even if you don’t have a specific solution khổng lồ what is plaguing your specific cognitive distortions, the negative thinking can quickly turn into a downward spiral that leads to a depressive funk.


One way you can modify your thoughts & get back on a positive path khổng lồ cognitive bliss is to lớn write down the things you have done right in your life. If you feel positive about your experiences, you will feel better. But if you’re not stuck in the spiral, you may be able khổng lồ think more objectively about your circumstances.


Specific Negative, Specific Positive


This extension of the above helps you clarify your strengths & weaknesses by identifying specifics instead of vague black and white distortions.


For example, you are struggling with your college math class.Black & white thinking says: I am not fit for collegeSpecific Negative, Specific Positive says: I struggle with math, & I’m getting an A in my English class.


Another example is you have a difficult coworker you don’t enjoy working with.Black and white thinking says: I don’t lượt thích my job anymore.Specific Negative, Specific Positive says: I have difficulty working with Karen, and I love the work I do. I also enjoy my relationship with my supervisor.


In reality, things aren’t always perfect, but that doesn’t mean you have to lớn play the “all or nothing” game. Learning to lớn identify specific problems và developing confidence by also addressing what you bởi enjoy will help you learn to lớn problem-solve specific challenges rather than throwing the baby with the bathwater.


Is It Helpful, Is it True, Is it Kind?


Honestly, the exercise is pretty straightforward & applies to lớn a lot of types of cognitive distortions besides all or nothing thinking.


In this exercise, run your thoughts through this filter. Unless the answer is ‘yes’ to all three, chances are you need to lớn re-frame your thought. Try some of the other exercises in this area to see how you can re-frame your thought so the answer is ‘yes’ when you run it through this filter.


See a Counselor


If you find that you have a tough time applying these recommendations to yourself, don’t feel bad. You may need some additional guidance & suggestions from the hands of a licensed therapist.


If you aren’t able khổng lồ access a therapist in person, consider searching for a mental health coach or an online therapist- both are terrific options that can be more accessible for people who struggle with black and white cognitive distortions.


Stop Seeing The World In Black và White


All or nothing thinking is likely a cognitive distortion you’ve suffered with for a long time, but being aware of it is the first step working toward grey thinking. Lượt thích many mental health distortions, anticipate that it will take a lot of practice, patience, trials, and errors before you master grey thinking over dichotomous thinking.


How are you able to see the world in shades of grey when you’re having black & white thoughts? chia sẻ your experiences & solutions lớn this common cognitive distortion below!


Read more mental health articles:


5 Ways Bullet Journals Improve Mental Health

8 Trackers to improve your health

Done is Better than Perfect

Time Management for the Type B Personality

And of course MY BOOK! Ready lớn use Habit Trackers





Helpful Strategies khổng lồ Fix All & Nothing Thinking



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