Shades of Gray

Black and white thinking – also known as all-or-nothing thinking – splits your world neatly into one category or another. If you’re experiencing depression, it’s common to fall into black-and-white thinking. You might focus a lot on your perceived failings, what you should have done differently in a situation and not surprisingly you end up feeling low. Black-and-white thinking also plays a role if you’re experiencing anxiety. A panic attack can make you think about a situation as either completely safe or completely unsafe.

Why Thinking in the Gray is Important

  • Black and white thinking can negatively impact your relationships
    Your partner is the most wonderful person in the world — until they’re the worst. This cycle of love/hate, down/up, good/bad can be seriously stressful for any relationship. In some cases, these wild lows and highs can be a sign of something more serious, such as mental health problems. In family relationships and friendships, quickly changing from thinking a loved one is perfect to feeling they’re awful can erode intimacy and trust. By seeing your loved one as either all good or all bad, you’re not letting yourself see them for what they are: a normal, fallible human.  See also How Mental Flexibility Helps Romantic and Family Relationships.
  • Binary Thinking Leads to Poor Decisions
    According to psychological research, thinking in binary terms can actually change the way we perceive the world, effectively conditioning us to miss nuance. In a 2016 study, Pomona College researchers found that participants’ perceptions of how someone was feeling changed depending on whether they were given black and white, or more fluid categories, to understand emotion. By conditioning a person to see things in more binary terms, black and white thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it even harder to perceive nuance.
  • It can signal a deeper problem
    While everyone experiences black and white thinking to some extent, extreme black and white thinking can also be a symptom of mental illness. People with Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, experience intense black and white thinking, which can in turn affect their perceptions of their relationships with others and with themselves.

How to challenge black and white thinking
Shifting your thinking can be difficult but with the right support, you can learn some helpful strategies. Cognitive BehavioralTherapy (CBT) and Mindfulness based therapy are effective ways to address black and white thinking. It is a process where you are encouraged to replace unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving with more helpful approaches. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight but with time and professional help, it is a very effective treatment.

How to Be In The Gray
Reframe your thinking. Catch yourself in the middle of a thought and challenge whether it is true or not. Are you really a terrible partner? Does your boss really hate you? Is your best friend actually ignoring you? Is it more accurate to think: ‘I might not have been at my best today, but my partner loves me and I can work to communicate better.’ Or ‘My boss doesn’t need to constantly reassure me, they will tell me if there’s an issue.’

Words like ‘never’ and ‘every’ are not helping you. Catch yourself using ‘absolute’ words and rethink them as ‘sometimes,’ maybe,’ or ‘every now and again’. Acknowledge and accept that life is filled with uncertainty. You don’t have all the answers all of the time. It’s completely fine to say, ‘I don’t know, I need to think about that more.’

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