Do you ever find yourself thinking of people as all good or all bad? For example, perhaps when you fall for someone you think they are wonderful, and when you have your first fight you suddenly want to run for the hills. Meanwhile, do you tend to take an “all or nothing” approach to life, seeing yourself as a failure if you don't meet every single goal? If these types of scenarios sound familiar to you, then you just might be struggling with black and white thinking. And while you might know on a rational level that life works in shades of grey, you may find it incredibly difficult to see your own life in this way.
So, what can you do if you're a black and white thinker? And why is it so important to develop a more nuanced perspective? This guide will explain the concept of dichotomous thinking and help you work on seeing shades of grey.
In psychology, the term “dichotomous reasoning” is used to refer to a tendency to see things in black and white. So, if you find yourself classing everything as amazing or terrible (with nothing in between), you're likely using dichotomous reasoning.
What it means is that you find it hard to see experiences and people as containing a mix of both positive and negative traits, when in reality things are ever rarely purely good or purely bad. You may also apply this type of reasoning to yourself, resulting in a very hard inner critic and chronically fluctuating self-esteem.
Black and white thinking causes a range of personal and relational difficulties, including the following:
In short, a life filled with dichotomous reasoning is an exhausting one in which it's hard to stay close to others, and crucial opportunities for growth are missed or ignored.
In your own psychology, black and white thinking can seem totally natural until someone highlights the profound, long-term difficulties that it causes. Consequently, it takes time, effort and concentration to develop new thinking patterns.
In some cases, you may also feel that you need therapy sessions, or potentially meditation in order to address mood swings. However, the following five strategies will begin to set you on the right path. They all focus on encouraging you to view yourself, your loved ones and your life choices in a different light, training your mind to see shades of grey that you've previously ignored.
When you’re learning how to stop black and white thinking, the first thing you need to do is accept that none of us are perfect.
Expecting yourself to always be at your smartest, funniest and most morally good will only ever lead to self-loathing and disappointment. It is enough to simply be good enough; to strive to be the best version of yourself, and to view yourself as a constant work in progress. Expecting perfection creates a moving target that you can never hit, setting you up for a life of dissatisfaction.
To challenge your assumption that perfection is needed, think about the people you value and respect the most. When you really look at them, they too will have personal flaws, struggles, and difficulties. This helps to show you that perfect is an unattainable ideal.
In addition, reflect on the times you were happiest or felt most proud, reminding yourself of what you can achieve without being perfect.
The next time you feel yourself drifting towards black and white thinking, stop yourself right there and ask why you're viewing the situation (or the person) in this light. Indeed, it will serve you well to look even further back in your life. Can you remember when you first started splitting the world into two broad categories of “good” and “bad”? Have you always been this way?
In many cases, dichotomous reasoning develops in childhood. Your parents, who may themselves have struggled to accept their flaws, may have modeled this reasoning. Alternatively, you might remember being told you were a “good child” and felt huge amounts of guilt whenever you failed to live up to that standard.
Regardless of the origin of your thinking, becoming increasingly aware of the causes helps you to make a new, conscious decision about whether you really believe the world is split into good and bad.
One of the most practical techniques you can use to change your thinking is to cultivate a daily habit of seeing shades of grey (not just black and white reasoning). In particular, challenge yourself to find at least one situation that tempts you to apply dichotomous reasoning. Then, deliberately look at that situation from a different (non-extreme) angle.
For example, perhaps your friend forgets to call you for the first time; try seeing this as a potentially excusable failing and accident, rather than something that indicates this person will always be a bad friend.
Alternatively, if you don't do as well as you'd have liked at something, prompt yourself to see what you do like about what you did.
When practiced daily, this simple exercise can create a whole new default. You might also consider keeping a notebook of short descriptions of each daily scenario, first writing the “black and white”judgment and then the “shades of grey” interpretation.
As well as using exercises that prompt more nuanced thinking, it can be really helpful to just become more aware of your thinking in general. This will make you more likely to notice instances of dichotomous thinking, stopping them before they get out of control. There are lots of things you can do in order to boost your self-awareness and track your thoughts. Some people like to set a timer (e.g. on their phone) once an hour, prompting them to notice and reflect on what they're thinking about in that moment. Others like to keep a daily journal.
Mindfulness techniques also increase your reflective capacities and can help to mitigate the stress-inducing effects of cortisol. Try a 5-10 minute breathing or body scanning exercise before you start or end your day, and focus on simply accepting what you feel (without judgment). This process can assist with your ongoing attempt to accept imperfection, too.
As noted above, when you tend towards black and white thinking it can feel like second nature to view things in this way. Consequently, your brain may spin a dramatic narrative or spark intense emotions before you even have much time to consider whether you're seeing a situation realistically. One thing that can help with this is using a role model to learn what balanced thinking really looks like.
You don't necessarily have to ask someone to walk you through their thought processes. It may be enough to just practice perspective-taking, with a particular friend or family member in mind. So, when something tricky happens at work, take a deep breath and ask yourself how someone mellow, reasonable (and maybe even a little boring!) would view this situation. Carry your imagined version of this person's perspective everywhere you go, checking it against your own instinctive response. Gradually, your assessments should become more balanced and realistic.