Do you find yourself using words such as “the best,” “the worst,” “love,” “hate,” “always,” or “never?” Do you say things like “I’m having the worst day ever?” or “He is always rude to me”? This way of thinking is a cognitive distortion called black and white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking.
Cognitive distortions are tricks that our brain plays on us. Our thought patterns become inaccurate or distorted, usually in a negative way. This habitual error in thinking can become the lens through which we view situations, causing us to interpret them in a negative way.
When we fall into the trap of black and white thinking, the ability to experience moods that are neutral or “middle ground” becomes more difficult. Polarized thinking can lead to extremely unrealistic standards for yourself and others. This keeps people from being able to see things in shades of grey. Life is not black and white. Life can be grey at times.
Let’s say you decided to start exercising. You are super excited to start your new routine of getting up early to work out. It’s been a while so, to be successful, you think that it would be best to work out 6 days a week with Sunday off. The first day is great! The second day you are so sore, you just can’t bring yourself to exercise. On the third day, you wake up and decide that you have already missed a day so you might as well give up. Then… you give up. No more exercise because you see your missed day as a failure. With black and white thinking, you either succeed or fail. There is no in-between.
If you could shift your thinking to shades of grey, you give yourself the ability to do well, without always needing to be perfect. Working out 3 days a week is 3 more than you did the week before. If you brush your teeth for 30 seconds instead of the full 2 minutes your electric toothbrush requires, that is much better than not at all. Studying for 2 hours for a test when you know you probably should have been studying for 2 days, the 2 hours gives you more knowledge than you had if you didn’t open up your study guide at all.
Think of a light switch. When you walk into a room, you can either turn it on or off. What about those light switches that have a dimmer on them, rather than an on-off switch? When you recognize yourself falling into the trap of black and white thinking, pause and attempt to find the middle ground. The grey.
When things fall short, try not to allow yourself to jump straight to seeing it as a complete failure. Take a step back and attempt to look at things from a different perspective. Dim the lights rather than turn them off. Where is the middle ground? Where is the grey?
Over time, experiencing the world in shades of grey could reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It could also help you develop and maintain healthier relationships.
If you are interested in learning more about black and white thinking and other cognitive distortions, please give Tx Harmony Counseling a call at 832-283-1702 or contact us here.