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Black and White Thinking: Finding the Space Between

black and white thinkingYou’ve heard it before: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”

This is a frequently used saying, but what does it really mean? Picture it. Baby, covered in strained carrots, yogurt and dried cereal. I’ve been there. You put the little chubby giggle monster in the water, and it just gets gross. Things are floating around, and the water changes into this murky swamp of ick.

Does that water make the baby less precious and snugly? Not at all. They are separate things. Gross water. Baby. Gross water does not make gross baby. We can put that together so easily with the baby metaphor, but not so easily with other situations.

Everyone has been on a diet at some point. So you’re kicking butt with the boiled chicken and sweet potatoes. You have clocked about 8,000 steps on your Fitbit, and it’s only 3 p.m. You haven’t eaten sugar in three days, when boom. Someone brings donuts into the break room at work. You wrestle with it for a good 13 seconds before succumbing to the sugary goodness. One little donut won’t hurt.

As soon as you have inhaled the last drop of glaze on your finger, regret sinks in. “Well,” you say, “I’ve already blown it. I might as well have another one.”

There you have it. The relapse story of every diet in history. Baby-bathwater. Familiar? You, and a million patients I’ve worked with — oh, and me too.

That’s just one of many examples. How about this one? You’re in a relationship that is in the beginning honeymoon period, where everything is a little more awesome and glittery. You’re still getting to know each other and feel a jolt of adrenaline when the other texts or calls. Then life happens. Your person has a bad day and exhibits human emotion. Conflict. Oh no. It’s all over. Perfect love can’t be like this! So you break up. If it’s not perfect all the time, it can’t be true love.

In therapy, we call this black and white thinking. This means you are only able to see one extreme or the other but not the space between, where balance resides. This is one of many cognitive distortions or problem thinking styles. Cognitive distortions are the ways we train our brain into thinking about things that perpetuate anxiety and depression. They make us act strangely, lose sleep, and jump to conclusions about situations when we have no evidence to support them.

All of us engage in black and white thinking from time to time, but the important thing is to acknowledge it when it happens, and talk yourself through the thought problem, in order to find balance.

A good way to start playing with balanced thoughts is to bust out a notebook or journal, and write the thought down that’s eating you up:

  • I am unlovable and will be alone forever. (Very common black and white thought.)

Then, I ask people to come up with times this statement wasn’t exactly true. I will have the person list three or four instances in which he or she felt loved.

  • Well, my dog thinks I’m wonderful.
  • One of my co-workers gave me a card for my birthday last summer.
  • I have had a few people tell me that I’m a trustworthy person.
  • I did have a boyfriend once, and he was nice to me.

The next part can be challenging: coming up with a balanced statement that isn’t as harsh as the first one.

  • Although I can feel alone at times, I do have people and animals that care for me in my life. If they care for me, I must have some worth.

Repeat this exercise frequently if you struggle with black and white thinking. It trains your brain much like a muscle. When an unbalanced thought shows up, it’s not welcome and you don’t automatically believe it to be true. Over time, people will stop thinking these thoughts because they serve no use and are easily discarded.

A big chunk of therapy is working through these thinking problems. If you experience black and white thinking in your own life, pause, breathe, and bust out a journal to process it before making any rash life decisions.

When I teach on this topic, people will say, “What? I do this all the time! Does that mean I’m crazy?” No, you aren’t crazy, you’re human. Unfortunately, our minds play tricks on us, and taunt us into feeling like we will never be good enough. Don’t always believe what you think. With continued practice, these thinking issues can be overcome. At that point, the rest is just gravy. Or donut glaze.


Black and White Thinking: Finding the Space Between

Audrey Mitchell, LCSW

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APA Reference
Mitchell, A. (2018). Black and White Thinking: Finding the Space Between. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 22 Jul 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.