“It was a total failure,” a client tells me about a situation. Now listening to their story, what you wouldn’t get from this one statement is that the situation being described is complex. It was full of many small wins, different perspectives and absolutely NOT absolute. Like most events in our lives, it was nuanced and certainly not the “total failure” my client absolutely felt that it was.
So why was this situation so crystal clear and simple to my client, and clearly not to me. The answer lies in what’s called “all or nothing” or “black and white thinking”. This kind of “one way street” is very common for people with ADHD and other neurodivergent brains and you may have seen it in your own thinking or your loved ones’ thinking before.
Black and white thinkers often characterize things as good or bad, wrong or right, or express their point of view in absolutes like, “there is only one way to do/handle or act” in a situation. There is very little “gray” or middle ground and the fact that most of life happens outside of the extremes is often lost on people with rigid thinking patterns.
If you are living with a black and white thinker, you might experience your child as “inflexible” or see your partner as stubborn or “set in their ways”. These characteristics are signs of an all-or-nothing mindset and they present a specific set of challenges when trying to help your child or partner navigate social situations, make friends or find peace in a “new” situation.
Where Does Black & White Thinking Come From?
Thinking patterns like these can arise from various environments, neurology or they can be the result of life experiences, often as a result of the experiences not as an intended consequence. In this example, think about someone who experiences a deep loss and makes the decision that every relationship ends or that everyone leaves.
The truth is, we all have a different response to stress. Some people find positive ways to cope that are hopeful and optimistic towards the future. Others, unfortunately, get trapped in anxiety or other negative responses that make navigating life more challenging.
Additionally, sensory issues, ADHD, autism, anxiety and depression may lead some people to develop a higher intolerance for uncertainty which can lead to greater black and white thinking. Research shows that dichotomous (AKA black and white thinking) is a reaction to the need for control. When chaos and overstimulation rule the brain, it can cause people to seek out areas of their life they do feel in control of, inspiring them to enact even more stringent rules over certain areas of their lives.
Thinking in absolutes (black/white, right/wrong etc) helps a brain that is overstimulated or stressed by options make sense of the world. The challenge is that this kind of thinking is actually a “cognitive distortion” or a view that reflects a misinterpretation of an event. When this kind of thinking goes on without checking or affirming the truth, it can cause beliefs to develop that are inaccurate. In other words, a distorted view of the events.
Adapted from Beck, 1976; Strohmeier et al, 2016
How Black and White Thinking Might Present
A black and white thinker may express:
- The day was “good” or “bad”
- Using words like “always” and “never”
- It was the “best day” or the “worst day” ever
- I’m “off” or I’m “on”
- “Nothing went right”, or “it all went perfectly”
- Their opinion is “right” and your opinion is “wrong”
Friendship & Black and White Thinking
Let’s start at the beginning. How you think affects what you do and your mindset affects how you approach each and every relationship in your life.
Black and white thinking can cause problems in relationships and friendships in 4 important ways.
- All or nothing thinking oversimplifies complex issues, which may mean not seeing all the nuances, weighing your options and realizing the important aspects of a situation.
- It often leads to cutting people off, breaking up with them or dismissing them because black and white thinkers tend to categorize people into categories such as “in or out”.
- Black and white thinking actually amplifies emotions, leading to being too quick to judge, feel affronted or terminate a relationship.
- Speaking in absolutes can also create conflict with other people and invite defensiveness as other people feel attacked. For example, when someone says “you never help me,” or I can “never count on you,” friends may feel defensive since this is not an accurate depiction of the situation.
Someone with black and white thinking may ask their friends, colleagues or family to choose their perspective rather than being open to other people.
They may be unable to accept change because of extreme thinking.
Or when considering a situation, they may twist events into their thinking pattern causing them to fall into catastrophizing and negative thought patterns.
Any way you look at it, black and white thinking is hard to manage either as the person with this kind of thinking pattern, or from the perspective of loving someone with this kind of thinking.
Here are 5 Strategies to Shift Black and White Thinking
- Notice your speech and challenge your inner voice. By recognizing when your thinking moves into all or nothing or other extremes is the first step in trying to shift this pattern. Pay attention to the words you say to yourself and what words signal this a black and white thinking pattern.
- Listen for words that are absolutes: “always”, “never”, “all”, “none” etc and look for patterns in your speech that signal this kind of thinking is ongoing. It’s common for catastrophic thinking to follow these word patterns, and you can see the negative picture emerge once you start saying these kinds of words to yourself.
- Challenge yourself to examine what feels like a fact for holes in your thinking. For example, if you say to yourself, “I am a total loser today; I didn’t make any of my goals” ask the next question before accepting that assertion as a fact. And that next question is: what evidence or facts proves your comment to be true. Try to be open to the “truth” versus trying to merely prove your case. Open-mindedness is key to shifting your fixed mindset into a learning or fluid mindset which is key to releasing the hold black and white thinking has on your life.
- Broaden your perspectives. This helps reduce the hold that binary thinking has on you. The world is not all black and white; there are MANY shades of gray and when you examine your “facts” a simple shift to add in the phrase “yes, and…” can open your mind up to other truths that coexist with your negative thoughts.
For example, “Yes, today did not go as planned AND I tried to make real progress toward my goals.” Remember that your rules are not absolute, they are guidelines.
- Build your skills. Being a flexible thinker isn’t an ingrained knowing. It’s a skill kids are taught and practice over time. Before judging yourself for not “getting this right” check in to see what’s causing the black and white thinker to compensate by trying to create control. These skills might include reading between the lines, perspective taking, or decoding words and what things really mean.
- Increased your emotional tolerance for negative feelings. Uncertainty can also cause feelings of fear, sadness, regret or anger to name a few. When you practice allowing all of your feelings (good or bad) to rise up and simply be without reacting impulsively to squash, avoid or remove the emotions, you start to learn that these feelings don’t bring about doom or disaster.
- Practice self soothing to cope with uncertainty. What do you need to feel better when you’re uncomfortable, out of your element or dealing with new emotions? This can range from taking a pause or a timeout, deep breathing, writing your feelings down or even talking with a trusted friend/confidante.
- Practice flexibility in your thinking. When you find yourself stuck in black and white thinking, it’s easy to also feel trapped and therefore, it’s pointless to try something new. This is exactly the moment to stretch yourself and see what you can do with your mindset. That said, adding greater flexibility to your life is not does not mean masking or people-pleasing, it’s more about expanding your ability to cope with emotions and uncertainty so you can adapt with less stress to the nuances and gray areas of life.
Black and white thinking is super common for people with ADHD and other neurodivergent thinkers. It’s also an area of your life that with practice can feel more in your control. And of course, this is a practice, not a perfect. Learning how to see new perspectives, develop a less stringent way of seeing the world and being gentle with yourself is required.
Whether you have this kind of thinking yourself, or you love someone with this mindset, it’s possible to adapt your way of thinking to help the world feel less stressful and easier to be yourself in.
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