Pain is a part of the human experience, but it’s the unhelpful thoughts we have about our pain, and our response to these thoughts, that fuel psychological distress. In the world of psychology, these thoughts are often referred to as cognitive distortions.

A cognitive distortion is a thought that represents a warped view of self, others, and circumstances. Typically, cognitive distortions result in ineffective patterns of behavior and intensified uncomfortable emotional states such as depression and anxiety.

Sometimes a cognitive distortion comes first, leading to an uncomfortable physical, behavioral, or emotional reaction. Other times cognitive distortions frame our perception of an event, exacerbating an already painful experience or emotion.

There are at least 10 common cognitive distortions recognized in the field of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of treatment that identifies and challenges cognitive distortions and the underlying beliefs driving them, with the purpose of reshaping consequent feelings and behaviors.

Depending on individual differences, some people are more prone to engage in certain types of cognitive distortions over other types, and with varying intensity. Most people encounter cognitive distortions on some level in their daily lives.

What is Black-and-White Thinking?

Let’s explore how one brand of cognitive distortions, black-and-white thinking, interacts with our feelings, behaviors, environments, and relationships. Also known as all-or-nothing thinking, black-and-white thinking is associated in with extreme mood swings and relational conflict.

However, it can show up subtly in our everyday lives, automatically sorting our experiences into categories. If you’re feeling stuck in a worn-out story, black-and-white thinking could be the culprit.

Black-and-white thinking is the “polarized lens” of cognitive distortions. When we engage in black-and-white thinking, we interpret self, others, and circumstances in a dualistic, inflexible manner. We see something as all good or all bad, all happy or all sad. Black-and-white thinking speaks the language of absolutes. It sounds like:

Always, Never, Every, Forever, All, None, Pass, Fail, Right, Wrong, Love, Hate…

We could add dozens of more words to this list. This way of thinking is a common part of the human experience because the brain loves categories. Categories are efficient and help predict patterns.

The brain’s ultimate job is to keep you alive, so it uses categories to help you identify what’s safe and unsafe in hopes of protecting you from pain and harm—both physical and psychological.

“Black-and-white thinking interacts with our feelings, behaviors, environments, and relationships.”

When you’re in a situation that feels threatening or safe, the brain remembers both, and gives that experience a label to reference for future circumstances:

“She never listens to me.”

“He’s the only person who understands me.”

“I’m always able to avoid consequences.”

“All risks lead to failure.”

In childhood, black-and-white thinking is our default mode; it’s a necessary part of our development, establishing our sense of right, wrong, safe and unsafe.

There’s no grey area when it comes to never, ever going to the basement to check out a weird sound, especially if you’re in a horror film. We learn not to touch the stove and not to talk to strangers.

As we move into adolescence, the brain gains the ability to think abstractly and move between absolutes. We learn that the stove is only hot when a burner is lit, and that in many contexts, being friendly with strangers is a way to build our capacity for connection and empathy.

It’s easier for us to think about the grey area between two sides.

However, when we are in situations that feel threatening or uncertain—like a big life change, political upheaval, or an argument with a coworker—the protective alarm bells go off in the brain. We look to black-and-white thinking to reestablish a sense of safety and predictability.

We reference past experiences that we’ve sorted into categories as a guide for our behavior and decision-making. Even expert critical thinkers can slip into automatic responses when identity and stability are at stake.

The Consequences of Black-and-White Thinking in Different Domains of Your Life

While black-and-white thinking can be helpful, it can narrow our experiences and limit opportunities for growth. All-or-nothing thoughts are often the culprit when we are stuck in a pattern of ineffective behavior.

Maybe you find yourself having the same fight with a partner again or sitting home alone on another Friday night. Maybe you can’t shake the nagging insecurity that’s settled over your career like a grey cloud.

Could it be black-and-white thinking?

Here’s how black-and-white thoughts could be defining different domains of your life, and how you can add more “shades of grey” to your narrative:

Your Relationship with Yourself

Labels bolster a sense of self, but what labels have you been feeding yourself lately?

Maybe you see yourself as a total failure, or just not an adventurous person. Maybe you struggle to see yourself as valued and loveable because you don’t measure up to an arbitrary standard of success.

“If I’m not (perfect, rich, CEO, physically fit), I’m a failure.” These categories ignore the many iterations of yourself that exist in between extremes and could encourage patterns of behavior that reinforce these beliefs about yourself.

Shades of Grey: Extreme labels are rarely true. When you catch yourself thinking you’re a total failure, too shy, or boring, define your terms more specifically.

  • “I’m shy,” translates to, “I am quiet in large groups and talkative with people who know me well.”

  • “I am a failure,” translates to, “I didn’t include a section about goals in my presentation, and I’ve learned what to do differently for the next briefing

Your Mood

How we label our circumstances can perpetuate how we feel about them. When we’re in a bad spot we might think, “I will feel this way forever” or “No one could possibly understand how bad I feel.”

This can close the door on hope, active coping, and reaching out for social support. On the flip side, we may be in a mountaintop season of life and trying to do all we can to sustain.

Instead of enjoying the moment, we become frantic trying to maintain it. “I will only feel confident and happy if I keep having success at work.” Living in all good or all bad sets us up for an emotional roller coaster ride.

Shades of Grey: If you’re feeling stuck in an emotional experience, ask yourself if the label you’ve given your emotion is appropriate. Perhaps you’re not feeling happy, but you also aren’t sad.

Check on a feelings chart like the one below to practice describing shades of emotion.

  • “I am facing hard circumstances right now. Sometimes I feel discouraged about it, and I have resources to support me.”

If it doesn’t feel invalidating, you can try practicing “opposite action,” which involves acting opposite to the emotion you’re feeling (i.e. If you’re feeling insecure, change your body posture to a more confident stance).

You probably won’t push yourself completely to the other side, but it could help you move into the grey area.

All-or-Nothing Thinking, Black-and-White Thinking, Cognitive Distortions

Your Social Life

Social media and FOMO have come to define our social experiences. We have constant avenues for comparing our social lives to those of our peer, and A-list celebrities. It’s harder to be content and live in the moment. “I don’t have the most likes, so I am unlikeable.”

Shades of Grey: I work a lot with high schoolers, and we recently made it through the homecoming dance season. As is true in life and teen rom coms, not everyone gets asked to the dance.

Not being asked to the dance is a neutral point between being asked or being rejected. However, many teens I work with perceive this as a negative.

Notice when you might be knocking neutral information about your social interactions into positive or negative categories, and check it back in the grey where it belongs.

Your Work and Goals

How much overtime do you put into your work, stressing about every last detail? Or beating yourself up when something doesn’t turn out just right? “If it’s not perfect, it’s garbage.”

Decision-making is laborious, feeling like you have to choose the very best option. With these thoughts driving you, you might find yourself burnt out, or giving up before you reach your goals.

Shades of Grey: Black-and-white thinking can feed a perfectionist attitude. In between perfection and failure, there’s “good enough.” Psych Bytes contributor Laura Hamilton offers wisdom about letting go of perfectionism and making peace with “good enough.” You can check out that article by clicking on the link below!

Your Relationships

Without being privy to the motives of others, we are quick to interpret mistakes of others through the lens of mal-intent. “She hurt me, so she does not care about me.” We fuse the behavior of others with their identity.

This type of thinking is often responsible for the exhausting “hot and cold” dynamic in some relationships, or the buildup of resentment that can make some relationships seem irreparable.

Shades of Grey: It can be as difficult to accept the co-existence of other’s personal strengths and weaknesses as it is our own. When interpreting behavior of those you interact with, switch from BUT to AND.

  • BUT: “He’s usually there for me BUT he ignored me today. He must not care about me.” This shuts out alternatives.

  • AND: “He’s usually there for me AND he ignored me today.” The two can coexist, and we can accept imperfections in our relationships.

Your Politics

A relevant attitude in our political climate is “you’re either with me or against me.” If someone is not on our side, it can be easy to frame them as the enemy. When we hold on to the notion of absolutes, it’s hard to listen to the other side.

Shades of Grey: I listened to a wonderful interview with Frances Kissling from On-Being, about finding good in the position of the other. She calls us to ask several questions:

  • What values exist in the position of the other?

  • What am I attracted to in the position of the other?

  • What do I doubt about my position?

It takes courage to bridge the gap, knowing we must admit vulnerability in our arguments, and tolerate the anxiety that comes with ambiguity. The payoff? Vulnerability builds a bridge for connection and cooperation.

When life doesn’t fit neatly into categories, as it rarely does, the brain protests. Thinking outside of categories requires extra work, but brings the reward of breaking out of black and white, all or nothing.

The research shows that expanding our capacity for abstract thinking is a lifelong process, and requires actively testing the automatic interpretations of our circumstances.

Approach labels and judgments mindfully, asking yourself what truth exists in the middle of seemingly opposing forces.

Click here for more content by Elise Howell, LPCA!

Elise Howell, LPCA
Elise's passion is to collaborate with teen girls and their families in navigating the unpredictable years of adolescence, and supporting women in cultivating healthy relationships with their whole selves. She engages with clients' strengths to help clients process their stories, build skills to move them towards their goals, and reconnect with what’s most important to them in life. When she is not watching classic romantic comedies, Elise enjoys kayaking, hiking, and beach days with her husband. She loves all things Harry Potter and musical theater.

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