How To Get Over Black & White Thinking

2 min


black and white all or nothing thinking

My go-to response is almost always a snap judgement. Yes or No. Now or Never. This type of black and white, all or nothing thinking seems innocent enough, but this pattern has caused me and my family great harm.

What Is Black & White Thinking?

A person who is stuck in all or nothing thinking ONLY sees two choices. The hundreds of in-between choices simply do not occur as viable options. Some examples of all or nothing thinking are:

  • Eat NO cookies OR the WHOLE bag
  • My spouse and I will NEVER argue. We will live happily ever after OR get a divorce.
  • I’m either an ALWAYS patient Mom OR an abusive terror.
  • NEVER, do I ever drink OR I am an alcoholic.
  • I follow my budget to the penny OR max out the credit card for the month.
  • I have to be perfect (which is impossible) OR I’m doomed to Hell.

Who Thinks Like This?

All or nothing thinking is common among people who are depressed. Creative people, persons who have PTSD, and many with autism are also likely to struggle with this constrictive thought pattern.

Interestingly, this type of thinking triggers one our body’s most primal instincts: fight or flight. The body responds to stress, leading to anxiety and sensory overload. When emotions fall, exhaustion takes over. The thought process is self-perpetuating. The body is either on high alert or too tired to function.

Writer and psychotherapist John Tsilimparis, featured on A&E’s Obsessed, explains,

This type of thinking colors all of our experiences and pressures us to live in the irrational realm of extremes.

Identifying The Problem

If we want to see the world in colorful choices, we first have to realize we are living in black and white extremes. Tsilimparis tells us to ask ourselves: Am I…

  1. Thinking in terms of extremes?
  2. Reacting emotionally when things don’t look right?
  3. Judging myself as strong or weak? Smart or stupid?
  4. Over-monitoring my decisions as right or wrong? Good or bad?
  5. Looking for too much certainty in a world full of uncertainty?

Ways To Think In Gray

Psychotherapist Renee van der Vloodt has three in the moment, physiological ways to interrupt this thought pattern:

  1. Change your breathing. Breathe in for 7 counts and breathe out for 11. This interrupts the physical stress reaction in your body.
  2. Do a body scan. Where are you holding tension? Lower back? Jaws? Shoulders? Even 15 seconds is enough to distract your body from the emotional pull.
  3. Park your mood. Use your thinking against itself. Park ALL of your all or nothing thinking in a time out.

To make a lasting change, Tsilimparis says we must sit with the anxiety. When we identify an all or nothing thought, he recommends we take five minutes to respond differently by:

  • Locating the balanced gray area of any stressful situation
  • Giving up the need to be right
  • Accepting all circumstances are neutral
  • Being more reflective than reactive
  • Accepting the subtle balance and varying degrees of life
  • Accepting that I cannot have certainty about most things right now

Recovery teaches me to first become aware. For years, I didn’t realize how often I succumbed to these rigid choices. Now that I know how to spot my all or nothing thinking, I can accept that I’m not the problem. My thinking is. I don’t have judge myself as either:

  • Right or wrong
  • Good or bad
  • Strong or weak
  • Smart or stupid
  • A success or a failure

I can take action. Along with the tools listed above, I am going to challenge myself to brainstorm other options that fall somewhere in between my initial extreme choices. One final note, all or nothing thinking might be a sign of depression. Find counselors and psychotherapists near you at Recovery Guidance. 

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Pam Carver

Pam is the author of two books: Co-dependent In The Kitchen, and Find Your True Colors In 12 Steps. She's also a contributing editor for Reach Out Recovery. She's a recovery advocate who likes long walks on the beach and chocolate.

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