Ever find yourself thinking of your options and seeing only two? How often does that inner critic tell you that if you’re not the best, you’re the absolute worst? And I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles to find any compassion when some public figure says something horrendous. So many people seem prone to black and white thinking – it’s a frequent theme in my coaching. The occasional blip is probably no big deal but when it’s becomes a pattern of thinking, it can really hold us back.
In this blog, I’m going to look at some of the issues of black and white thinking and how to overcome them.
Black and white thinking is known by psychologists as “dichotomous thinking” and is defined as:
“…the tendency to think in terms of polar opposites…without accepting the possibilities that lie between these two extremes.”1
It’s often identified within significant psychological conditions, however milder manifestations seem common. Modern society seems to favour absolutes and I wonder if the “echo chambers” of social media may be exaggerating this.
For example, think of the negative language we tend to use with the middle ground:
Middle of the road
On the fence
What’s The Impact?
On one hand, black and white – or dualistic thinking – can be helpful for us to categorise things. In particular, this is true when we’re dealing with a deluge of information. On some level, it gives a sense of certainty and security – that we know “what’s what”. But categories such as right/wrong, good/bad, clever/stupid, productive/lazy etc. are overly simplistic.
In terms of coaching, I see these thought processors creating undue stress and pressure, eroding self esteem and closing down options. For me, a key part of coaching is ensuring that the full spectrum of options are available. That is to say, that choices are not being ruled out or restricted by subconscious beliefs and behaviours. Black and white thinking is definitely a pattern that severely restricts choices.
For example, black and white thinking shows up with perfectionism traits when someone doesn’t try because they know they can’t be perfect or the best – “I’ll never be able to run a marathon so what’s the point in exercising?”. Also, positions can become more entrenched – “My boss hates me and will never be happy with anything I do”. Self esteem is eroded – “No one will ever want to be in a relationship with me”. And it narrows down possibilities – “If I leave my job as a senior manager, I couldn’t survive”. The list goes on…
As Gattuso (2018) says:
“This kind of thinking can be exhausting, sending us through constant ups and downs. And on a deep level, simplifying things into easy, binary terms robs us of much of the complexity that makes life and relationships so rich.”2
How to Overcome Black and White Thinking
Awareness – as with any unhelpful thought patterns, the first step is noticing it. This can be tricky and is where modalities such as coaching can really help.
Compassion – awareness must be accompanied by compassion and kindness. Beating yourself up for doing a habitual thought pattern, which is trying to help you feel more secure, will only make things worse. You learned to think in this way and now we’re trying to unlearn it. There is no judgment involved.
Exploration – when you notice a dualistic thought, pause and start to explore the options between the two extremes. Again, no judgement or filtering.
Uncertainty – accept that there might be no certainty and that things are neutral.
Language – take notice when you’re using absolutes in your language like “nothing”, “never”, “always”, “every”.
Positivity – focus on the positives. What have you achieved? What is working for you?
Shh – if your inner critic is telling you about shortcomings, faults and problems, dial down their volume. They’re not helping; we’re not sure what they’re saying is valid; turn them down.
Help – if you can only see one side, ask others what they think, and listen with an open mind. Or seek the help of a professional.
Embrace the Grey!
With black and white thinking, we’re missing out all the wonderful stuff in the middle. By embracing the grey, it opens up a world of colour and choice.
This world enables us to see people, options, and ourselves as complex, rich and nuanced. We can select the things that work and ditch the things that don’t. That means we’re free to take a bit of this and a bit of that. The inner critic can be silenced. And we can build relationships, an environment, a career, a life that really work for us. Over time, we can learn to play, experiment, learn and share. And that’s all with kindness and compassion – for ourselves and others.
Star (2019) sums it up perfectly:
“Allowing ourselves to venture into uncertainty is, paradoxically, a way to see more clearly: not in black and white or even gray, but in complex, dazzling rainbow.”3
Free yourself from the shackles. Jump into a wonderful world of colour.
- American Psychological Association APA Dictionary of Psychology “Dichotomous Thinking”
- Gattuso, R (2018) TalkSpace “5 Ways Black and White Thinking Poisons Your Perspective”
- Star, K (2019) VeryWellMind “How to Overcome ‘All or Nothing’ Thinking”
- Tsilimparis, J (2011) HuffPost “Breaking Out of Black and White Thinking”
- Ziogas, GJ (2019) Medium “Shades Of Grey: How To Stop Black And White Thinking”