A man sitting on a park bench looking up towards the sky.

“If you don’t call me to ask how I’m doing, you don’t love me.” 

“I never have anything interesting to say.”

“If I fail to get this promotion, my whole career has been a waste of time.”

These are just some examples of black-and-white thinking—a common cognitive distortion where we see situations in extremes. When you make all-or-nothing statements like this, the absolutes may feel very real to you. It's only later, when you look back on the situation, that you realize how irrational these thoughts were and that the scenario was much more nuanced than you first thought.

So how come we keep repeating this limiting way of thinking?

A quick Google search will lead you down a rabbit hole that points to mental health. In one study, researchers found that people who suffered from anxiety and depression used absolutist words more often than others. They tended to see situations in black-and-white, rather than acknowledging the different shades of gray.

But is it really that simple? Your own experience probably tells you that it's not—and experts agree.

Everyone thinks in black and white

“Black-and-white thinking is true whether you have a mental health disorder or not,” says Dr. Rubin Khoddam, Ph.D., MA, clinical psychologist and founder of COPE Psychological Center. “We all do it … but that's not inherently a bad thing.” 

In fact, Khoddam wants everyone to know thinking in absolutes is not only normal but an evolutionary advantage.

Our brain continuously takes in massive amounts of information and generates anywhere between 6,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. It’s hard to keep track of all this data and all these thoughts, so we’ve evolved to categorize them into mental boxes

For example, we put robins and canaries in the “bird” box, and PowerPoints and brainstorming in the “having a meeting” box. 

It's like our brain's way of decluttering. And if this predisposition towards categorizing experiences makes it easy for us to classify something as “totally this” or “totally that,” well, that’s just the trade-off for keeping our mental house in order.

Black-and-white thinking can be useful

Often, we subconsciously place information into black-and-white boxes to protect ourselves. “We put something quickly in a file folder, and it absolves us of deeper thinking and understanding," Khoddam says. "Not in a bad or malicious way, but because we have a lot to process...Having some easy way out by categorizing things as good, bad, right, wrong can give us a shorthand to go about life.”

For instance, you might decide that lifting weights is good and cardio is bad for weight loss. That's your brain's way of simplifying things. Time is short, and you don't want to deploy too much energy into reading all the exercise studies, figuring it out, and risk finding out that you've been doing it wrong all this time.

This is a low-stakes example. But for some people, it becomes a high-stakes issue. For example, you might interpret your partner's disagreement as suggesting that you are incompatible with each other, and then feel like breaking up with them.

For licensed professional counselor with Dunlap and Associates Counseling William Bendgen, MA, more frequent and serious incidents of black-and-white thinking usually correlate with life experiences. “[Experiences] can create a bias as the mind tends only to recall the overall good or bad outcomes of a situation," he says. Bendgen adds that the severity of a situation, along with a person's desire for control in their life, influences their tendency toward black-and-white thinking. “It is easier to feel in control of outcomes when you only view two possibilities.”

The problem with thinking in extremes

You know you're engaging in black-and-white thinking when you think and talk in absolutes. Words like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” “no one,” “right,” “wrong,” “fully,” “completely,” or “forever” are indicators that you’re seeing the situation as all-or-nothing, and ignoring the gray areas between.

While putting things into neat “either/ or” boxes is an easy way to simplify information, Khoddam says, "it's not always an effective or helpful way to do it." What's happening here is that someone is seeing the situation through the lens of their own perspective and ego, painting a narrow picture of what's going on.

In Bendgen’s practice, he often sees black-and-white statements directed at other people in the relationship, for example: 

  • “You never help out around the house.”
  • “My boss always forgets to include me in emails.”
  • “You never think to ask how my day is going.”

This sort of communication is not helpful as it won’t get your point across effectively. In fact, it dissociates from, rather than addresses, the root cause of the issue. This “often makes the recipient of the statement defensive,” Bengden says, leading to more disagreements and arguments—which means everyone is unhappy.

One research psychologist, Kevin Dutton, based a whole book on the concept that black-and-white thinking is harmful to not only the person doing it but also the people around them—and the problems go further than arguments and misunderstandings.  

Khoddam believes that the more you use this type of thinking externally, the more it occurs internally. “[Black-and-white thinking] doesn't lead to a more holistic understanding of who we are and what other people are and what other situations are,” he explains. “[You might say,] ‘I'm a bad person, I did something bad.’ Maybe you’ve done bad things, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad person. And so when we're able to take a more nuanced gray-area approach, we're able to see how good and bad and right and wrong coexist.”

For Bengdon, black-and-white thinking is the definition of getting in your own way. For instance, if you feel like a project must be completed in one session, you may decide not to do any of it if completing it all at once isn't possible. You won't consider making progress in smaller increments, even though a 10- or 20-minute session would help you feel less stressed.

The inertia that black-and-white thinking creates is self-sabotaging and gets in the way of personal growth. This can leave you feeling overwhelmed, unfulfilled and frustrated towards yourself or others, Bendgen says.

How to break free – three expert tips

While it can take a while to change how you think, Khoddam says the first step is to “be an observer, to be mindful of when it happens.” Once you recognize that you’re lapsing into black-and-white thinking, you can challenge it with the following strategies:

1. Employ empathy and self-compassion

Bendgen tells his clients that looking at your brain’s thought processes through a lens of self-compassion can be helpful, not only for recognizing harmful thinking patterns but also in giving yourself grace. So don’t ask, “Why am I thinking this?” Instead, try questions like, “How is this thought keeping me safe?” and “Is there a way I am benefiting from this thought?” 

Asking yourself these questions promotes self-efficacy and empathy and creates a mindset that is open to change.

2. Put your thoughts “on trial”

“I will often encourage clients to write down the thought along with realistic evidence to support this thought to be true,” says Bendgen. When you do this, you can recognize fact versus fiction, identifying what you assume is true and what is actually true.

“[Ask yourself], is this a full picture of what the reality is and is this helpful? If the answer to either of those is no, then you need to change it,” says Khoddam. He recommends asking questions like, “What is the information I'm not incorporating? What are the parts of the story that are being missed in this black and white way of thinking?”

3. Practice mindfulness

Khoddam says mindfulness is one of the best practices to overcome all-or-nothing thinking. “Take that pause and actually reflect—‘Am I using those words?’’” he says.

One mindfulness approach that Khoddam recommends is something called “Catch It, Check It, Change It.” First, you need to “catch” yourself engaging in that thinking. Then, “check it” by asking yourself if the thought is logical or helpful. Finally, ask yourself if you can “change it” by finding a balanced, realistic and helpful way to view the situation that is not based on extremes.

Final words

Logically, you know that you can love someone and also be angry with them; that you can be not in the mood to do something but push yourself to do it anyway; that two people can have opposing views but somehow both be right. The trick is to adapt how you think to accommodate these nuances and stop compartmentalizing. 

As Bendgen says, this is a perfectly realistic goal: “we have the ability to retrain our minds and allow them to become more in line with our core values.”

Stepping away from black-and-white thinking takes a deliberate effort. You'll need to recognize the patterns and challenge your perceptions of a world that is not as dichotomous as you may believe. And remember, perfection isn’t what you’re aiming for. We’re all a work in progress—remind yourself that you're making progress every time you embrace the gray.

Cianna Garrison
Cianna Garrison holds a B.A. in English from Arizona State University and works as a freelance writer. She fell in love with psychology and personality type theory back in 2011. Since then, she has enjoyed continually learning about the 16 personality types. As an INFJ, she lives for the creative arts, and even when she isn’t working, she’s probably still writing.