The Error of Thinking in Black and White Terms

Apr 1, 2021

We are all prone to making the mistake of thinking in either-or terms, but this trap becomes especially likely if we are dealing with depression and/or anxiety. Thinking in black and white terms is a cognitive distortion (see our blog from March 2020 for an introduction to cognitive distortions). This concept is also called all-or-nothing thinking, polarized thinking, or dichotomous thinking.

The hallmark feature of this pattern of thinking is dividing conclusions into two polar opposite categories-It’s good/acceptable or it’s bad/failure. And to add insult to injury, we tend to define what’s acceptable in very narrow terms which leaves a lot of room to deem everything else a failure.

Here is the range of failure Acceptable

What Happened to “The Gray Area?”

A great example of how dichotomous thinking functions comes from letter grades. I see quite a few students, and many assert that an A is acceptable and anything else is a failure. It’s been awhile since I was in school, but last time I checked, an F is a failure. Although maybe not ideal, Ds, Cs, and Bs mean you pass and produced work that didn’t constitute failure.

The real shame with this cognitive distortion is that it doesn’t allow for people to acknowledge what progress they have made. There is no room to say “I didn’t meet my ultimate goal, but I did accomplish X, Y, and Z.” We berate ourselves for not hitting that narrow range of acceptable and feel anxious/depressed as a result.

We Do Better Than We Realize

To combat this trap, we have to first realize that it’s happening. Ask yourself if you are prone to this way of thinking, and in what situations does it tend to happen. From there, when you recognize you’re falling into the trap, consider the following questions:

  • What did I accomplish?
  • What did do well?
  • What can I give myself credit for?
  • What’s the gray area I’m not seeing?

What was accomplished needs to become the focus-not where you fell short. If we can answer these questions honestly, they will illuminate that there are positive things going on which will decrease feelings of depression/anxiety.

If you are struggling with black and white thinking or cognitive distortions and want to work on them in counseling, I’d love to chat with you. Please give our office a call, and we can discuss further.