One of the most common symptoms people with anxiety or OCD experience is black-and-white thinking. But what is it, exactly? How can we identify it? Why do we do it? And, most importantly, how can we stop? Let’s break it down.
What is black-and-white thinking?
Black-and-white thinking is the tendency to view all situations in terms of extremes; things are either good or bad, right or wrong, all or nothing, etc. From this perspective, there is no room for anything in between. It’s a thought pattern that makes it difficult to see the gray area and that does not account for the complexities or nuances that most situations entail. This results in our emotions, mood, and anxiety levels bouncing back and forth from one extreme to another, which can feel paralyzing.
Why do we use black-and-white thinking?
As humans, we desire to be in control. Black-and-white thinking is one way that we, unproductively, try to attain this. Our brains want to label things and put them into definitive boxes. The underlying goal being, “If I can define this, I can control it. If I can control it, I do not have to be vulnerable or hurt.” We have also been conditioned by an achievement-driven culture that unconsciously tells us that if things aren’t perfect, they’re bad. Or, even worse, that if we aren’t perfect, we are bad. These tendencies are intensified in people who have anxiety, OCD, trauma or who are perfectionistic.
Why is black-and-white thinking harmful?
Black-and-white thinking doesn’t actually give us the control we desire from engaging in it. It only gives us perceived control. It doesn’t account for all of the complexities and nuances of life. It doesn’t allow for emotions to co-exist, which causes them to shift back & forth between extreme highs and lows. It exhausts us. It causes us to catastrophize and create false meaning out of situations. We also end up putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others. And all of this, inevitably, ends up making us feel worse and, ironically, out of control.
What are some examples of black-and-white thinking?
- Thinking you’re horrible at your job after making a mistake
- Worrying that one disagreement with your partner will result in the end of your relationship
- Believing that taking care of yourself & prioritizing your needs is selfish
- Invalidating your struggles because ‘someone else has it worse’
- Feeling guilty about setting boundaries with a loved one
What should we do if we’re engaging in black-and-white thinking?
- Notice It – Having awareness and naming the behavior is key to changing it. Start by simply identifying it when it happens before you even try to change it. Keep a tracker so you can notice any patterns. Do this for at least a week.
- Don’t Judge Yourself For It – You’re working through deeply engrained, unconscious thought patterns. This can be hard to change and will take some time. Your tendency will be to judge yourself or beat yourself up as you work to overcome this. Essentially, your instinct will be to use black-and-white thinking about your black-and-white thinking. This is counterproductive and will only make you feel worse. Having patience & self-compassion is important. Try to remind yourself that it’s okay to be where you’re at while you work to get where you want to go.
- Get Curious About It – View your thoughts as data and get curious about what they’re telling you. Ask yourself: What is the story I’m telling myself about this? Am I thinking in extremes? What meaning am I making of this? What might I try to be protecting myself from? Is there something I need?
- Challenge & Reframe It – Using the information you gathered, consider another alternative about the story you’re telling yourself. Think about both extreme versions of the story and consider what falling somewhere in the middle might look like. Use the word ‘AND’ to construct a new version of the story with the data you have.
What are some examples of challenging & reframing black-and-white thoughts?
- I’m really good at my job AND I make mistakes sometimes.
- We had a disagreement AND we are happy in our relationship.
- I care deeply about others AND I prioritize my own needs.
- Other people have more struggles than I do AND I am dealing with some really hard things.
- I love my family a lot AND I need to set boundaries with them.
Why is challenging & reframing black-and-white thoughts important?
Our realities don’t typically bounce back and forth from one extreme to another, but our thoughts can trick us into thinking that they do. Finding the ‘AND’ by challenging & reframing these thoughts reminds us that BOTH things can be true. It allows space for there to be more than one truth, more than one reality and more than one emotion. It allows us to not define ourselves, our relationships or our circumstances based on a singular event. And it allows us to have more compassion toward ourselves.
By gently and consciously challenging & reframing our black-and-white thoughts over time, we can live a more calm and grounded life. We can trust ourselves more. We can stop constantly feeling like we need to ‘fix’ ourselves or our circumstances. We can stop being paralyzed by our thoughts. We can experience more neutral emotions and more easily sit with our hard ones. And we can begin to live the lives we truly desire.