Key Takeaways

  • Black-and-white thinking, or dichotomous thinking, is a type of cognitive distortion that causes people to think in extremes or absolutes. 
  • Signs of black-and-white thinking include perfectionism, a narrow perspective, and difficulty compromising.
  • When left unmanaged, black-and-white thinking can affect people’s self-image, relationships, and ability to succeed. 
Black-and-white thinking is when people think in extremes or absolutes. For example, deciding that you dislike a certain food after only trying it once or claiming that someone is a good or bad person without any real reasoning.  Also called dichotomous thinking or polarized thinking, black-and-white thinking is part of a category of thought patterns called cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated patterns of thought that influence how people think, feel, and act. Most cognitive distortions, including black-and-white thinking, can cause people to view things about themself, others, and the world around them in a negative way. Although black-and-white thinking isn’t a mental health diagnosis, it is associated with several mental health conditions and can impact your ability to work, study, connect with others, and feel your best. The good news is that it’s possible to overcome this all-or-nothing mindset with the help of mindfulness practices and mental health support.

Five signs of black-and-white thinking

1. Extreme language

One sign of black-and-white thinking is using extreme terms to describe people, places, and feelings. For example, a person may say something like “You always treat me this way” or “I never feel happy.” Other words that suggest dichotomous thinking include perfect, failure, and impossible.

2. Limited perspective 

Because people who engage in dichotomous thinking tend to think in extremes, they’re often unable to entertain the idea of another perspective. They see situations as “right or wrong,” “good or bad,” “healthy or unhealthy,” etc. This type of thinking leaves little room for nuance, complexity, or alternative viewpoints. 

3. Difficulty compromising 

People with black-and-white thinking may also struggle with compromise. Rigid thinking or insisting that there’s only one “right” way to think or act in a situation may be signs of black-and-white thinking.

4. Tendency for perfectionism 

Another potential indicator of black-and-white thinking is when people set unrealistic standards for themselves. People with black-and-white thinking strive for perfection and anything less is considered a failure.

5. Emotional conflict 

People with black-and-white thinking tend to view things in extremes, meaning they may experience overwhelmingly positive or negative feelings. This type of thinking can cause distress, mood swings, and emotional conflict. 

What are the downsides of black-and-white thinking?

Black-and-white thinking may seem like a harmless personality quirk, but this way of thinking can prevent you from living a full and balanced life. When left unmanaged, black-and-white thinking can impact your relationships, performance at work or school, and how you view yourself. 
  • Relationships: Having an all-or-nothing view can lead to tumultuous relationships. When romantic partnerships are a constant cycle of “love or hate,” it can prevent people from fostering trust, acceptance, and understanding. It can also impact your ability to create meaningful relationships with family and friends. 
  • Performance: Black-and-white thinking can also limit your success at work and school. For example, claiming that you’ll never understand math or science may limit your career prospects later in life, while believing that you’re not worthy of a promotion at work can hinder your chances for growth and success.
  • Self-esteem: Most people can appreciate their strengths and skills, while acknowledging that there are some qualities they’re still working on. But if you’re unable to see both sides, it can impact how you think about yourself. For some people, this may mean being overly critical or unable to show themselves compassion.
Other potential consequences of black-and white-thinking include increased stress and anxiety, impaired problem-solving abilities, and reduced resilience. 

What mental health conditions are associated with black-and-white thinking?

Although dichotomous thinking isn’t a diagnosable illness, it can be a symptom of mental health conditions like personality disorders, anxiety, and depression. Research has also linked black-and-white thinking to eating disorders, based on the idea that limited thought patterns can cause people to label certain foods as good or bad, or eat too much or too little.  Another recent analysis found that black-and-white thinking typically occurs in people with maladaptive traits, meaning people whose mental health conditions prevent them from coping with or adapting to stress in healthy ways. 

How to overcome black-and-white thinking

Changing your mindset can be challenging, but there are tools to help manage dichotomous thinking. To start, find small ways to challenge your current mindset on a daily basis. Here are a few ideas to get started: 
  • When you disagree with someone, take a moment to consider their perspective and find common ground before reacting.
  • Make lists to help you consider other possibilities or outcomes regarding specific situations. 
  • Empower yourself to broaden your thinking by writing yourself notes with objective advice, such as “Gather all the details before making a decision,” or “Listen to someone’s story before passing judgment.”
  • Employ mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing, before reacting or making a decision. 
If black-and-white thinking continues to have a negative impact on your life or is linked to a more serious mental health condition, consider speaking with a mental health professional. Talk therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be used to challenge cognitive distortions like black-and-white thinking. Through individual therapy sessions, therapists can assess and treat unhealthy emotional reactions, ways of thinking, and behavior patterns.

Find mental health support with Rula

If you’re tired of living with an all-or-nothing mindset and ready to find some balance in your life, know that help is available. Rula makes it easy to find a licensed behavioral therapist who is in network with your insurance, accepting new clients, and an expert in caring for your unique needs.  Whether it’s breaking unhealthy habits or treating a mental health condition associated with those habits, Rula’s network of over 8,000 licensed therapists means you can be seen from the comfort of your home this week.  

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