Black and White Thinking: Want to Be Grayer?

Black and white thinking, also known as dualistic thinkingall-or-nothing thinking, and splitting, is considered in cognitive therapy to be “the most common type of negative thinking, and is the main cause of many problems including anxiety, depression, and addiction.”

Therapist John Tsilimparis, Huffington Post, explains the concept:

Throughout our lives, we often inspire undue stress and anxiety by viewing our existence with a ‘dualistic mind.’ We create a world of private duality, a world that is limited to fixed or black and white thinking. We do this because it gives us a (false) sense of security and control over life’s uncertainties. The dualistic mind tricks us into thinking we have this ‘life’ thing figured out, and we don’t have to struggle and search anymore. And that feels good — but only temporarily.

Dr. David Burns, on his Feeling Good website, writes of the stress associated with this type of cognitive distortion:

It’s really easy to get trapped by All-or-Nothing Thinking without realizing what you’re doing to yourself. When you look at life in black-and-white categories, you may tell yourself that your new job or project will either be a ‘total success’ or a ‘complete failure.’ This creates tremendous pressure, since few experiences in life end up as ‘total successes’ or ‘complete failures.’ Most of the time, we end up somewhere between 0% and 100%.

A particularly relevant example of black and white thinking involves politics, as “…when members of the Democrat Party portray members of the Republican Party as narrow-minded and self-interested, and conversely when members of the Republican Party caricature members of the Democrat Party as self-righteous hypocrites” (Neel Burton, MD, Psychology Today).

Laurie Essig, PhD, Psychology Today, recently posted “American Politics Or Why I Can’t Even“:

Instead of even considering the rational reasons for voting for one candidate over another, Americans are choosing leaders in the white heat of anger and longing.  We have devolved from homo politicus, always a highly irrational and emotional creature susceptible to image manipulation,  to homo pissedofficus, a much more dangerous species unable to engage in anything other than labeling those with whom we disagree ‘the enemy’…
…Americans have lost the ability to have a discussion about issues because we have started to believe that you’re either with us or you’re against us.

Getting Beyond the Black and White

The following is a detailed strategy from John Tsilimparis (Huffington Post), who advises you ask yourself these kinds of questions:

  • Am I thinking in terms of extremes (black and white thinking)?
  • Am I reacting emotionally when things don’t look right?
  • Am I judging myself as strong or weak? Smart or stupid?
  • Am I over-monitoring my decisions as right or wrong? Good or bad?
  • Am I looking for too much certainty in a world full of uncertainty?

Then apply the “5-minute rule” to find replacement thoughts:

  • I will locate the balanced gray area of any stressful situation that is presented to me.
  • I will give up needing to be right and accept that all circumstance is neutral.
  • I will be more reflective than reactive.
  • I will sit in the anxiety and accept the subtle balance and varying degrees of life.
  • I will accept that I cannot have certainty about most things right now.

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