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How To Break Up With Black Or White Thinking

Sometimes we get stuck and we don’t even know it.

It happens in our thinking. It isn’t obvious, like walking across a room into a wall that stops us from going any further. It’s more difficult to detect because it’s internal. But it’s just as much of a roadblock.

A friend was on a very restricted diet to try to resolve an allergy issue. She was giving up her favorite foods for a few weeks to see if eliminating them had any effect. The next time I chatted with her, she reported that her allergies improved which meant she’d have to give up her favorite foods… FOREVER.

Wow. That’s depressing news to think that you can’t eat the foods you enjoy ever again. But is it true?

It turned out her doctor hadn’t told her that. It was her conclusion: Either she eats the foods she likes and has an uncomfortable reaction, or she never eats them again.

This kind of thinking is called black or white thinking. It’s when you see only two extremes as options. There is no grey area.

It’s a mental trap. It may look like you’re in control, efficiently evaluating a situation based on the evidence, but you’re actually cutting yourself off from the full range of possibilities. And making your world look a lot more rigid, grim and uncompromising in the process.

Another friend moved across the country after her divorce. She bought a house and began establishing a new life for herself. She discovered, though, that she didn’t like living by herself. She created an online dating profile to find a relationship that would provide the companionship she wanted. But online dating served up more misses than hits. She would always be alone.

Ouch. It’s heartbreaking to even consider that. But is she truly destined for a lifetime without human connection?

Black or white thinking becomes a habit over time. The clue that you are caught up in black or white thinking is when you use words that indicate extremes like always, never, forever. Everything or nothing. Perfect or horrible. Brilliant or stupid.

How you perceive a situation shapes how you react. What can you do to shift from black or white thinking to be more flexible and open to shades of grey?

1) Catch yourself in the act. Notice when you are using extreme words that create an all-or-none dichotomy.

2) Re-evaluate the situation. Ask some questions:

  • Is your assumption true? Can you absolutely know this is true?

  • How can you reframe this situation with maybe, sometimes, and and?

  • Can you think of options that fall in the grey area between the extremes?

For example, my friend who thinks she has to give up her favorite foods forever might discover:

  • Some of her favorites are not causing the reaction and therefore need not be eliminated at all

  • She may only need to eliminate certain foods for a short time, and then she can re-introduce them

By breaking the pattern of black or white thinking, you discover possibilities that you couldn’t previously see. Like my friend who didn’t want to live alone: she connected with an acquaintance who was in need of a place to live for a few months. My friend is now sharing her house and enjoying the company of her housemate.

Loosening the grip of black or white thinking allows you to gain a clearer understanding of the circumstances around you. You’ll find a new world of possibilities – alternatives you could never have seen otherwise.

"Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in." – Alan Alda

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