If you experience black-and-white thinking, practicing mindful speech can help you cope. A mental health professional can also provide treatment options for any underlying conditions.

The way that you think can affect your mood and behavior. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s often hard to notice where it affects you.

One of the more common thinking patterns that can cause problems for you is black-and-white thinking. This way of thinking can affect your perspective and cause you to see things as only “good” or “bad”, with no in-between.

While these patterns of thinking can negatively impact your overall well-being coping strategies and treatment options are available for you. You’re not alone.

Dichotomous thinking, also known as black-and-white thinking, is when your thought patterns assign people, things, and actions into one of two categories – “good” or “bad”.

Black-and-white thinking is part of a group of thinking patterns called cognitive distortions, it’s sometimes referred to as “splitting.”

According to a 2021 review, black-and-white thinking, typically occurs in those living with maladaptive traits, such as:

  • psychopathy
  • eating disorders
  • aggressiveness

Everyone does this from time to time. For example, when you’re in love with someone, they might seem absolutely perfect to you. Or after a fight with someone you might not think anything but bad thoughts about them.

If you can only think of people as either entirely good or entirely bad, you might not be able to see the good things the “bad” person does or the negative things the “good” person does.

If you see everything you try as a complete success or total failure, you may not be as likely to try new things if there’s a chance you might fail. In your mind, anything less than total perfection could be the same as completely failing.

Some signs of black-and-white thinking are:

  • Using extreme terms to describe everything: always and never, perfect and failure, easy and impossible.
  • Perfectionism: You may think that you must do something perfectly or not attempt it at all.
  • Inability to see either the good or bad in a person: This can lead you to believe someone must be only one or the other.
  • Negative self-talk: Since it’s very uncommon to do everything perfectly well all the time, if you’re using black-or-white thinking you might refer to yourself as useless or a failure.
  • Fear of trying new things: If all you can imagine is a complete success or total failure you will try your best to avoid that failure, even if it means not acting on a certain task.

Mental health conditions associated with black-and-white thinking

Several mental health conditions have black-and-white thinking as an associated symptom, such as:

Common problems associated with black-and-white thinking include:

  • Difficulty with relationships with others: When a person or relationship moves into the “bad” category, it may cause you to act impulsively.
  • Problems with sticking with tasks: Any difficulty experienced could seem like it’s a sign that it will fail and lead you to quit.
  • Poor self-image: If you do something wrong you may think you’re a failure. Which could lead to you thinking you can’t do anything right, although you are successful with other tasks.

If you recognize your own thinking patterns in the descriptions of black-and-white thinking, you should know that it’s possible to change how you think. Some ways to start this include:

1. Ask other people what they think about various situations

It’s always helpful to get another perspective on whatever is going on, and they might also be able to show you the nuance of the situation.

2. Take a look at the words you use to describe things

See if you can replace “always” or “never” with “sometimes” or “maybe.” Just paying attention to your word usage can also make you rethink a situation.

3. Look for evidence that what you’re thinking isn’t correct

If you think you’re a failure, think of things you can do right. It may also be helpful to keep a physical or digital list of all of your accomplishments. If you think someone is terrible, try to think of the good things they have said or done.

Seeking professional support

If you can’t seem to break out of black-and-white thinking on your own, it may be time to see a mental health professional. They can diagnose any conditions that may be contributing to your thinking and treat them, as well as help you learn to see the world in shades of gray.

Was this helpful?

Black-and-white thinking is a common cognitive distortion, or altered way of thinking. It means that you tend to see the world in all-or-nothing terms.

If you experience black-and-white thinking, it can affect your:

  • mood
  • relationships
  • ability to perform tasks
  • your self-image

You’re not alone, strategies are available to help you cope. If your black-and-white thinking is the result of another mental health condition, treating that condition is the best way to tackle your thinking.

Consider speaking with a mental health professional to find out which treatment options can help you.