Black and White Thinking

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 25, 2024
4 min read

Black and white thinking is a thought pattern that makes people think in absolutes. For instance, you may think you are either always right or the world’s biggest failure. Psychologists consider this thought pattern to be a cognitive distortion because it keeps you from seeing life the way it really is: complex, uncertain, and constantly changing.

Black and white thinking doesn’t allow you to find the middle ground, which can be hard to sustain in life at those extremes. Becoming less rigid in our thinking lets us stop using “all or nothing” statements to depress ourselves without examining whether or not they’re true. Using this 'cognitive' technique helps you to spot what you are doing and challenge your false impressions.

While it’s normal to experience black and white thinking sometimes in life, it could be a sign of something more serious if it becomes persistent. All or nothing thinking is commonly associated with these conditions:

Narcissism. Narcissism is an exaggerated, excessive interest in oneself. Black and white thinking can be a symptom of this personality disorder. People who have it will often find it challenging to get help because they quickly dismiss doctors and therapists.

Anxiety and depression. When people have anxiety and depression, it’s common for them to think in absolutes. More extreme emotions can cause black and white thinking to become worse.

Borderline personality disorder. Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness that causes people to experience intense feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression. They often will have symptoms of poor impulse control and frequently display black and white thinking.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s common for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder to think in absolutes because it gives them a sense of control and comfort. This can lead to a lot of rigidity which makes it hard to change.

Black and white thinking can have very different effects on your mental health depending on its cause.

Relationships. If you approach normal relationship conflicts with extreme, black and white thinking, you'll often draw the wrong conclusions about other people and miss opportunities to talk things out and compromise. Examples may include:

  • Suddenly moving people from the “good person” category to the “bad person” category
  • Quitting a job or firing people
  • Breaking up a relationship
  • Avoiding a real resolution of the issues

Learning. Many courses have simple measurements of performance: pass or fail. This can lead students to believe they are either good or bad at school, with no room for a middle ground. Adopting a growth mindset can help students recognize the value in step-by-step progress as you get closer to the goal of mastering the subject.

Career. Sometimes black and white thinking can cause you to become too rigid. This type of thinking can be a problem in work environments where there is a lot of collaboration and sharing of different ideas.

Diet. If you think about what you eat in extremes, it could greatly restrict your diet and make it hard to try new things. This type of thinking may also cause you to see your physical appearance and body as only good or bad, which can be damaging to your mental health.

If you want to think in black and white less, try these tips:

Reframe your thinking. If you catch yourself jumping to extremes, try challenging yourself. Think about why you might be thinking the way you are and whether there is another viewpoint you may not have considered.

Watch your words. Black and white thinking words like "always' and "never" are signals to pay attention to. If you hear yourself saying things like that, remind yourself to replace it with different words like "maybe" and "sometimes".

Acceptance. If there is one constant in life, it's change. Try to be comfortable not knowing everything. It's OK to ask for more time to think about something or say, "I don't know".

Cognitive behavioral therapy. Many psychologists recommend something called cognitive behavior therapy, which can help you overcome unhelpful thinking patterns.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy works by helping you:

  • Learn to recognize distortions in your thinking that create problems and counter your habits.
  • Gain a better understanding of the behavior and motivation of others.
  • Use problem-solving skills to manage difficult situations.
  • Get a greater sense of confidence in your own abilities.
  • Move from extreme thinking to a more flexible and adaptable mindset.

With the right strategies and professional help, you can learn how to replace extreme thinking with healthier, more helpful approaches.