If you’re not with me, you’re against me. There are only winners and losers in life. I made a little mistake at work—so I’m a total failure. These are all examples of black and white thinking at play. But while these phrases seem simple, they don’t quite reveal just how toxic this type of limited thinking can be.
Black and white thinking, or “splitting,” is when we organize our thought patterns in terms of extremes. “Good” versus “bad,” “always” or “never.” The purpose of black and white thinking is to cut out any data that exists in the in-between. We engage in this cognitive practice for good reason: We are attempting to avoid anxiety about living in the gray. We write positive and negative narratives in our heads (like, “My ex is a monster who is completely to blame for why our relationship failed”), rather than creating one cohesive narrative. This splitting of realities prevents us from feeling the plethora of complex emotions that arise when we sit with all the messiness of life.
For example, you might say in one breath about your partner: “She’s so kind and perfect for me,” and in another: “On the rare occasion when she drinks, she disrespects me.” This kind of black and white thinking allows you to “split” your negative feelings off about being with a complex partner, who is maybe not as kind or perfect as you want to believe.
As I recently discussed on an episode of The Well+Good Podcast, such psychological splitting is a common behavior in dating and relationships, especially, but it can occur in our perspectives on situations, concepts, and events, too, as we try to avoid the complexity of mixed feelings.
Why does black and white thinking happen?
Many of us learn to split early on in our lives. If you had a neglectful, abusive, or unpredictable caregiver, for example, you may have needed to cut off your negative emotions about them in order to continue to rely on them. Seeing them in their fullness wouldn’t have been in your best survival and dependency interests.
By a different token, if you have a marginalized identity, you may have had to split off or hide qualities of yourself that wouldn’t be considered “acceptable” in certain community, academic, or professional spaces. Similarly, you may have learned to split off “negative” qualities about yourself in order to preserve your public image; for example, on a date you may only talk about your positive traits because you fear that exposing the negative may counteract the positive and lead to rejection.
In general, the brain seeks certainty and assurance—over any sort of ambiguity or confusion—as a survival mechanism. The tricky part is, there’s a lot of good information for us (and about us) in the messy stuff.
How can black and white thinking hurt you?
In reality, we all possess beauty and madness; we’ve just been taught to hide the parts of ourselves that may be labeled as displeasing. While putting our “acceptable” parts forward might keep us safe, and perhaps protect the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, over time this split disconnects us from our truth—what we know and the fullness of who we are.
If we live in extremes, as required by black and white thinking, we live a more limited life. We do not welcome our fullness or the fullness of others.
If we live in extremes, as required by black and white thinking, we live a more limited life. We do not welcome our fullness or the fullness of others. If we have rigid definitions of success and failure, for example, then we are unlikely to take risks to get what we want—which, ironically, reduces our likelihood of succeeding.
Consider a black-and-white scenario where you believe success means getting rich and nothing else. In this mindset, you won’t be able to notice (or appreciate) the many other ways that you are successful if you aren’t rich. Similarly, if you are unable to look at the in-between in your relationships, you may stay in relationships that don’t serve you or be overly critical of relationships that do.
Extremes hold us back from experiencing the full sensations of aliveness: feeling the full spectrum of what is true.
How to stop black and white thinking and live in the “gray” areas
1. Practice tolerating discomfort
We avoid living in the in-between and welcoming wholeness because it can bring up big, scary emotions. For example, if you allow yourself to consider the complete story of your relationship, it may prompt you to feel grief about ending that partnership. Your strategy of splitting your partner into good and bad might be protecting you from feeling this grief.
To better tolerate the discomfort of the in-between, try writing out all the things you notice about a person or situation— positive, negative, or unsure of categorization—without putting pressure on yourself to do anything about it. Just let it flow out of you, and sit with the whole story.
Notice, in small doses (even for just two minutes), what happens in your body when you do. Do you feel tension? Do you feel openness? Do you feel fear? Continue to sit with what comes up when you are in the midst of it all. Over time, see if a message emerges about acting on anything you feel.
2. Get opinions from people you trust
When you are figuring out how to stop black and white thinking, it can be helpful to get perspectives of people whom you trust to be able to hold all of it. Getting curious about what other people think doesn’t mean doing what they say, but rather welcoming in other perspectives that might allow you to consider more than the two extremes that exist in your mind.
3. Get curious about extreme language
Notice how you speak about yourself and others, and look out for linguistic extremes or absolutes like, “He is never listening,” or “I am bad at sharing about myself.” Revisit these statements, and ask yourself if they are 100-percent true or if there are other potential perspectives you might consider.
Taking into account more than one truth might look something like: “He listens when we are one-on-one but struggles to pay attention when we are in groups,” or “I get scared when I share things about myself, so I try to avoid it, which doesn’t give me space to practice it.” Notice how you feel after you begin to unspool a more complicated story about your and others’ behaviors.
4. Seek opposing data
Ask yourself: What if the story I am telling myself isn’t true? What evidence do I have to contradict the narrative I’ve come up with? These inquiries will allow you to complicate your story and consider new perspectives, therefore broadening your experiences of yourself and others.
Your black and white thinking was developed to keep you feeling safe and not activated. Yet, you might find that pushing yourself toward the activating stories and emotions allows you to live more fully and freely in yourself—and in your relationships with others.
Want to learn more about how to stop black and white thinking in relationships and beyond? Listen to the full podcast episode here.