How to fix all or nothing thinking to improve yourself and relationships
Have you ever experienced thoughts such as:
“I am the best” or “I am the worst” with no in-between?
I have to have all external conditions be 100% perfect to complete this task.
“My significant other is amazing” when you receive a compliment, then “My significant other is awful” when he makes a complaint?
Welcome to the world of black and white thinking. You may also know it as all or nothing thinking or polarized thinking. These are all common phrases that address a particular type of cognitive distortion that has you thinking in extremes.
And unfortunately, these extreme thoughts can make it very difficult to:
- Complete your work
- Have peaceful relationships
- Forgive yourself
- Work with others
- Negatively affect physical and emotional health
Why does something seemingly so small have such detrimental effects?
Because life is actually filled with shades of gray.
I’ve struggled with black and white thinking pretty much all of my life, and I’ll be honest: changing this style of cognitive distortion hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely improving my life in a ton of different ways. Unfortunately, I suffer from some mental illnesses that exacerbates the tendency to fall into black and white thinking pretty easily.
(This article contains affiliate links. For more information, read my disclosure.)
What is Black And White Thinking?
Black and white thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking or all-or-nothing thinking, is the inability to bring together both positive and negative perceptions of the self, others, or circumstances into a realistic, whole view.
People who struggle with black or white cognitive distortions often think in extremes, believing something is all good or all bad without a middle ground.
It is not uncommon for individuals who struggle with black or white thinking to swing from one extreme perception to the other. This tendency causes challenges in how one perceives themselves, instability in relationships, and can cause mood swings.
Black and White Thinking Examples
Negative emotions can span from a lot of different types of cognitive distortions. But which ones specifically revolve around black and white thought patterns?
Luckily, there are frequently used phrases that tend to come along with all or nothing thinking.
Words that may indicate you are dealing with this particular distortion include:
- Ought To
Another indication of black and white thinking is that you may find yourself believing people/circumstances/careers are all good or all bad. If something results in a good result/attitude/feeling, you may find yourself discounting potential bad things. And vice versa, if something results in a bad result/attitude/feeling, you may find that you tend to discount positive things.
How Black and White Thinking Harms You
Black and white thinking can cause a lot of challenges in different situations, such as jobs, relationships with others, learning new information, and your own self-confidence.
Believing circumstances are all good or all bad, or something is all or nothing, can put you in precarious situations. It can negatively cloud judgment, which prevents you from seeing reality clearly.
For instance, you may think a boyfriend is all good because he wants to be with you- but he yells and manipulates at you. Black and white thinking may make it more challenging to leave this type of relationship.
You loved your job until that awful new coworker started. Now everything about work is bad, and you think the only solution is to quit your job.
You are funny, creative, and smart- but have some difficulty completing work on time. Black and white thinking causes you a lot of pain and grief. You honestly believe that you aren’t good at anything, which causes you to feel hopeless and depressed.
In all of these circumstances, grey thinking can help you look at obstacles and challenges a bit more objectively.
Why Do I Have Black and White Thinking?
Black and white cognitive distortions can come from a lot of different sources, including:
- Mental illness and personality disorders
- Childhood trauma
- Adult trauma
- Growing up with a narcissistic parent
Likely, there are other sources that create a tendency toward black and white thinking beyond just this list. If you find yourself identifying with black and white thought processes listed in the signs section, consider reaching out to a therapist or mental health professional for more accurate guidance and diagnosis.
The good news is that you can modify your black and white thinking. If this type of cognitive distortion leans toward all or nothing, you can learn how to use ‘grey’ thinking instead.
How to Change Black And White Thinking
What is grey thinking? Grey thinking is the in-between spectrum of black or white.
In other terms, always and never becomes ‘sometimes’. All or nothing becomes ‘some’. Perfect or imperfect become ‘good at some things, bad at others’.
Basically, incorporating grey thinking teaches you to utilize the often quite wide spectrum that separates the black and white.
Here are some helpful exercises that help you identify black and white cognitive distortions as well as helping you transition toward grey thinking.
And remember, as with any new mental health skill, you won’t change your lifelong problems overnight. Practice, forgive yourself when you slip back into old patterns, and try your best.
It’s super important to address your thoughts without judgment. A lot of people who have black and white thinking are often aware of this tendency and probably feel bad or guilty about it. While it’s understandable, feeling bad and guilty unfortunately doesn’t fix the problem.
Practicing mindfulness regularly can help you tune into your thoughts, your body sensations, and work past your difficulties a little more easily. When you try to push away your cognitive distortions, you probably find them just come roaring back with force. Being mindful can help you learn how to cope with your thoughts without needing to engage with them.
Ways you can practice mindfulness include:
- Guided meditations – I’ve found Chel Hamilton’s to be most helpful
- Body scans
- Five Senses exercise
For more mindful activities, check out this super helpful resource from Positive Psychology with lots of different ideas. It may take some practice to find the specific exercise that helps you out, so keep trying and have patience.
Make a List of Other Possibilities
Often black and white thinking comes from not thinking of other perspectives by hyper-focusing on one particular narrative. One way you can challenge this is by listing other possibilities instead, while focusing on narratives that are neutral or positive.
So, for example, a friend cancels plans with you last minute. Your narrative instantly shifts to “My friend doesn’t want to spend time with me”.
Listing other possibilities for this scenario could include:
- “My friend got sick”
- “My friend had to go into work”
- “They accidentally double-booked their scheduled”
- “They have no money to do the activity we planned”
- “Their energy isn’t as good as they were hoping”
- “They had a last-minute plan change”
- “A long lost family member came over”
The best trick is with listing possibilities is to shift the focus outside of yourself or to imagine yourself in their shoes.
Oftentimes the black and white thinking narrative tends to be negative- you find yourself imagining a worst case scenario possibility in your head. So another way to challenge your cognitive distortion is to come up with a ‘best case scenario’.
In a way, you are momentarily shifting to the other extreme, but sometimes this shift can help you to think a bit more realistically and recognize that you are thinking in black and white.
Do You Have Proof?
This one has you challenge your black and white thoughts directly by allowing you to ask yourself “Do I have proof that this circumstance is black/white?”
Questions to ask yourself:
- Is it true? If yes, has this circumstance actually happened before?
- Am I relying on logic or emotions?
- Have I ever been able to work through a similar situation? If yes, how?
If you find that your answers:
- Aren’t true
- Relying on emotions
You may want to try the list of possibilities exercise or the best case scenario exercise.
Otherwise, if you have worked through similar situations in the past, can you use your experience to help guide you through your circumstance.
When your black and white thinking distortions cloud your judgment, one really easy way to get back to reality is to just ask if it’s true.
Now, the trick with getting clarification is to word it in a way that helps the other person not get defensive.
For instance, you are having difficulty with a coworker. Chances are asking “Do you hate me?” or “Why are you such a jerk?” is not going to lead you to any helpful conclusion.
One way to get clarification would be to ask “Hey, coworker, sometimes when I work with you, I feel like you are short with me when we talk and I wonder if I may be irritating you. Is this true?”
You can’t control other people and they may get defensive or not provide a helpful answer anyway. Remember that only you can control yourself. But by asking in this manner, you will more likely have these outcomes.
- You could get clarification on what is causing their behavior
- They may address the specific problem they have
- Both of you can work toward a better solution
Now, you can’t always guarantee you can get clarification from somebody else, as the only person you can only control is yourself. But it is an option, and one that can help if the other individual is willing to listen, cooperate, and work toward a solution.
Shift ‘Black and White Words’ to ‘Grey Words’
Remember that list earlier that discussed commonly used words when it comes to black and white thinking?
Instead of those words, consider trying to substitute these words and phrases below:
- I’m noticing that…
- I’m willing to…
- I don’t like this circumstance
- I prefer something different
- I’m flexible enough to…
Also, another trick is to modify how you express your thoughts and feelings.
Instead of saying “This IS a disaster”, try saying “I’m having the feeling that this a disaster”.
Instead of thinking “She is perfect”, try saying “I’m having the thoughts that she is perfect”.
This little tactic is called diffusing. When you change something from ‘this is’ to ‘I’m having the thought/feeling’, you’re acknowledging what is real… the thought or feeling. Thoughts and feelings are always valid, and it’s important to acknowledge them.
One really helpful book I love that clarifies this concept is called . Based on acceptance and commitment therapy it teaches a lot of helpful measures to help deal with chronic stress. The book taught me to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
What Would You Say To a Friend
When our black and white thinking involves ourselves, often we are the least kind and forgiving toward ourselves. As a result of trauma or mental illness, we constantly berate and are unforgiving toward our circumstances.
One tip my therapist gave me that I find really helpful is to imagine what you would say to a friend going through the EXACT same situation. Chances are you would be kind and forgiving toward them, yes, but what would you actually say to them? Journal it out or talk out loud, figure out what you would say/do differently, then apply the knowledge to yourself!
What Have You Done Right?
Even if you don’t have a specific solution to what is plaguing your specific cognitive distortions, the negative thinking can quickly turn into a downward spiral that leads to a depressive funk.
One way you can modify your thoughts and get back on a positive path to cognitive bliss is to write down the things you have done right in your life. If you feel positive about your experiences, you will feel better. But if you’re not stuck in the spiral, you may be able to think more objectively about your circumstances.
Specific Negative, Specific Positive
This extension of the above helps you clarify your strengths and weaknesses by identifying specifics instead of vague black and white distortions.
For example, you are struggling with your college math class.
Black and white thinking says: I am not fit for college
Specific Negative, Specific Positive says: I struggle with math, and I’m getting an A in my English class.
Another example is you have a difficult coworker you don’t enjoy working with.
Black and white thinking says: I don’t like my job anymore.
Specific Negative, Specific Positive says: I have difficulty working with Karen, and I love the work I do. I also enjoy my relationship with my supervisor.
In reality, things aren’t always perfect, but that doesn’t mean you have to play the “all or nothing” game. Learning to identify specific problems and developing confidence by also addressing what you do enjoy will help you learn to problem-solve specific challenges rather than throwing the baby with the bathwater.
Is It Helpful, Is it True, Is it Kind?
Honestly, the exercise is pretty straightforward and applies to a lot of types of cognitive distortions besides all or nothing thinking.
In this exercise, run your thoughts through this filter. Unless the answer is ‘yes’ to all three, chances are you need to re-frame your thought. Try some of the other exercises in this area to see how you can re-frame your thought so the answer is ‘yes’ when you run it through this filter.
See a Counselor
If you find that you have a tough time applying these recommendations to yourself, don’t feel bad. You may need some additional guidance and suggestions from the hands of a licensed therapist.
If you aren’t able to access a therapist in person, consider searching for a mental health coach or an online therapist- both are terrific options that can be more accessible for people who struggle with black and white cognitive distortions.
Stop Seeing The World In Black And White
All or nothing thinking is likely a cognitive distortion you’ve suffered with for a long time, but being aware of it is the first step working toward grey thinking. Like many mental health distortions, anticipate that it will take a lot of practice, patience, trials, and errors before you master grey thinking over dichotomous thinking.
How are you able to see the world in shades of grey when you’re having black and white thoughts? Share your experiences and solutions to this common cognitive distortion below!
Read more mental health articles:
5 Ways Bullet Journals Improve Mental Health
8 Trackers to improve your health
Time Management for the Type B Personality
And of course MY BOOK! Ready to use Habit Trackers
This is such a wonderful, informative article with so many good suggestions. I’ve read it two or three times already – trying to remember it all! I think I’ll add some notes to my journal, too. So much of this is true for me. It’s like you know me!
Highly informative post.
Read the possible causes. Narcissistic father here. I think the worst thing is that we believe b&w thinking is actually required, while I think it is absolutely useless and only causes bad things and emotions.
Hi Rachel, I’m a consummate gray-area person, and my late husband was black and white all the way. It made for some interesting interactions, but ultimately I think we were able to bring out the best in each other. You offer some very practical and helpful insight into black and white thinking.
What is the name of the book you mentioned helping with chronic stress?
Great post Rachel! I think my fav bit was “Is It Helpful, Is it True, Is it Kind?” SO good to remember that! Thanks also for recommending my meditation podcast 💕 Keep on putting out helpful, quality work. You are doing a great job! All my love, Chel 🤗