Black and White Thinking

We are not our thoughts. Our thoughts are separate operations from our identity and there is a process to thinking – or our cognitive process. We can be in control of our thoughts but part of being in control is understanding when you may fall into a ‘thought trap’. We can define a thought trap as irrational or exaggerated negative thought patterns that can steer us to believe things that aren’t necessarily true. An example of a thought trap many therapists will listen for when working with clients is what’s known as the cognitive distortion–or an exaggerated pattern of thinking–of “splitting.” Splitting is also known as “Black-and-White Thinking,” or “all-or-nothing thinking”, which tends to show up as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray in thoughts and situations. In other words, things are seen in terms of extremes – something is either good or bad, fantastic or awful, or you believe you are either perfect or a total failure. Splitting doesn’t just happen in our thoughts but can also impact our relationships with others, with this all-or-nothing thinking. As we reflect on our relationship with our thoughts and our relationships with others it is essential to consider how we can live in the gray – and how living in the extremes of black-or-white thinking creates challenges for ourselves and our relationships.

Splitting is more natural than you may think and shows up often, especially when stress and anxiety are high. If you listen to how people talk about solving their problems, it isn’t uncommon for there to be two options considered: what is right or what is wrong. Challenging splitting involves acknowledging that maybe there are more solutions and different ways of thinking than one or the other that has not yet been considered. You as an individual can choose what is right for you and that doesn’t then mean that you are doing anything wrong if someone disagrees with this choice. It does mean that there can be an opportunity to learn more about why you made the choice you did and to be willing to take in feedback through the lens of what more could be considered. Asking yourself, what might I not know and would be helpful to also consider? 

As individuals, if we live in the bad vs good, yes vs no, black-and-white thinking there could be missed opportunities for true connection to ourselves and others. If an individual lives their lives believing that there is only one way or another, this can create a fixed way of perceiving situations and solving problems. It can limit the potential to learn more and evolve. The black-and-white thinking is most readily available, but what if we could pause and consider what else could be true, what could be in the gray space? 

Let’s consider this example: when there is conflict in a relationship the discomfort of fighting can cause some people to jump to the conclusion that “this relationship is bad” or “this person is bad.” I like to challenge this extreme of labeling it as either ALL bad or ALL good to find the gray area. Maybe there has been a lot of fighting and that feels bad but where are there exceptions to this feeling when maybe the relationship feels good, too? This ties in with how we think about ourselves, too. If the project I am working on isn’t perfected as I’d like it to be, if I were splitting I would jump to the conclusion that the project is a failure, period. To think of this in the gray space is to maybe recognize that I was disappointed I couldn’t perfect the project, but that there was still a success in completing the project. Not a complete failure, not complete perfection, but somewhere in between. 

It may be helpful to consider why splitting comes so naturally to us and how this can transition into how we think and relate to differences in our relationships. Think about how having to choose between two options pops up in our day-to-day lives and within our society. For example, we have to vote for or against something, check yes or no, stop or go, turn things on or off, etc. We are surrounded by choosing between two options daily, and that tends to play out maybe ok. But, it plays out differently when there are disagreements or differing beliefs among people.  Splitting causes rigid inflexibility with ourselves and also others leading to a division among people. Consider why people may avoid talking about politics and religion. Maybe these topics are avoided because there is a challenge to have conversations in the gray space between. What if no one is right and no one is wrong? What if there was no one way or another way? What if there was somewhere we could all land in the space in between? 

The first step is to start noticing splitting coming into how you think about yourself, your relationship and your experiences. As you consider current struggles, also think about if maybe there’s a tendency to label yourself or others as good or bad, or having passed or failed. If you find yourself doing this, congratulations! You are not alone and just now caught yourself from falling into a thought trap! If you notice that you are sliding toward the thought trap you can pause and consider what could also be true or possible in the gray area. 

Visual imagery may help as you observe your experience – look at this picture of the mountain with all of the peaks, valleys and clouds. We want to notice when we are in the peaks and in the valleys (the extremes) and reach for the space in between (the clouds). You recognize the extremes of the peaks and of the valleys but there is clearly space between. So next time you find yourself labeling yourself/your relationship (or others) one way or the other, visualize the mountains and ask yourself: have I  naturally reacted by going to the peak or valley – if so, recognize there’s an opportunity to go hang in the clouds. What could change in your life if you lived here in the gray? 

Stay tuned for our upcoming Zession where clinicians discuss how they experience splitting as professional helpers.

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