How to Rise Above Black & White Thinking

Our thoughts have a major impact on how we feel and act. Many of us struggle with problematic thinking patterns that keep us stuck in a variety of ways. These patterns are also known as cognitive distortions.

One very common distortion is known as “black-and-white thinking”. By thinking in black and white, our ability to perceive things clearly and fairly is limited. It can be difficult to notice this pattern as a significant problem.

As children, this process of quickly determining things, such as what people or situations were safe, was beneficial. Yet as adults, the complexities of life and the world around us are no longer able to fit neatly into categories such as good or bad. Below are a few Q&A’s to help you understand and heal this way of thinking.

Common questions about black & white thinking:

Q. What happens as we grow older while our thinking remains black and white?

Behaviors, attitudes, people, and other actions get rigidly placed into categories of good or bad. Extreme terms such as always, never, impossible, or perfect are used. This way of thinking prohibits flexibility and breeds feelings of shame and guilt.

Q. How do we decide how things should be labeled?

Typically, we observe the people around us and notice how they react. Or we watch media and advertisements that impact our knowledge of what is currently valued or acceptable.

We have experiences that either positively or negatively impact us and then rely on those memories to influence future decisions.

Q. How else does black-and-white thinking affect our lives?

Sadly, B&W thinking can cause a lot of issues. For example, it can create challenges in relationships by categorizing every action with a friend or partner as right or wrong. It can also hinder self-growth and learning by challenging our curiosity about new topics, foods, places, or cultures.

Lastly, staying stuck in this thought process creates disturbances in our professional lives by blocking our ability to work well with others due to rigid beliefs. Your ability to work as a team player or with some flexibility is inhibited.

Q. How does this thought pattern affect those struggling with disordered eating?

Placing value on food or body size creates a hierarchy of good and bad that ultimately impacts how one feels about oneself. By marking food as either good or bad, options and flexibility are hindered.

When one fails to follow perfectly a certain guideline, a form of backlash or spiraling in a negative way typically occurs. This limits our ability to find peace with food and our bodies when our thinking becomes limited to all or nothing. When in reality, all food has value in some form (caloric, taste, texture) and all bodies have value regardless of their size.

Q. What can I do to decrease black-and-white thinking?

The first step is to recognize when you are doing it. Notice if you are using extreme phrases such as: always, never, impossible, and perfect. Notice when you are labeling or naming anything as good or bad. Pause and try to find the gray, or middle zone. How can this “bad” food or challenging this belief that it is bad be good for me?

Get excited about the potential enjoyment of adding new things to your life. Continue to be curious about your thoughts and the impact it has on your mental and physical health.

If it feels very challenging to shift out of these patterns, talking with a clinician or dietitian can help you progress more quickly. The benefits of breaking out of black-and-white thinking are truly life-changing!


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Written by Leah Ehinger, MSW, ASW, RYT