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Unhelpful Thinking Patterns 3/11 - Black & White (All or Nothing) Thinking

Updated: May 9

Chalkboard Illustration: 'Right,' 'Wrong,' and the Crossed Out 'No In Between' - Depicting the Limitations of Binary Thinking

This is the third part of a series looking at common unhelpful thinking habits.

These are patterns of thinking that our minds can slip into as a way of coping with challenging situations.

You can read more about this in my earlier post here.

The Rigid World of Black and White Thinking

The ‘Black & White’ thinking style is also sometimes called ‘All or Nothing’ thinking, or Binary Thinking, and is when our mind has a tendency to think in absolute terms, not appreciating that there may be grey areas in a situation.

It is a very rigid thinking style and prevents us from finding the middle ground.

Not Work-Life Balance, More Like Work-Life Misery

There are many different ways in which this thinking habit can cause us problems; just a couple of examples are:

in relationships it can cause difficulties due to missed opportunities for negotiation and compromise;

in our work life it can cause pressure and stress if we approach everything as if it is a pass/fail scenario, never being able to recognise or celebrate our partial successes.

Language Matters: Identifying and Altering Absolute Wording

The language we use can make a huge difference to this thinking habit – listen out to see if you find yourself using absolute type wording, such as ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘should’, and ‘must’.

If you notice that you are using this kind of language a lot, then try replacing the words with something more flexible, such as ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ and ‘maybe’.

There is some crossover between this thinking habit and the should/must style of thinking as the language we use to speak to ourselves is very similar.

Reflecting for Flexibility: Managing 'Black & White' Thinking through Perspective

Another way of managing this thinking habit is to take a little time to reflect on the situation and try to write down as many different alternative explanations or perspectives as you possibly can for what is going on.

This will probably be quite difficult at first, so it can be helpful to bounce ideas off other people as getting their point of view can be really helpful in identifying multiple viewpoints of the same situation.

Appreciating Subtleties: Loosening Inflexible Patterns with Practice

With practice you can start to loosen up the inflexible patterns and start to appreciate subtleties in the challenging situations.

But this will take a conscious effort and committed action!

Notice and acknowledge your initial Black & White interpretation and ask yourself what could inhabit the grey area in between – explore the possibility that not everything fits neatly at one end of a scale or the other.

Establish a regular reflective habit…whether it is through journaling or by talking things out with another person – that is often helpful as it introduces you to fresh perspectives.

Practice is key, and it’s easier to start with the small stuff before trying to tackle the big issues.

This is because that helps to build your confidence as you go - there will undoubtedly be set-backs and challenges as you are working on developing a new perspective.

Kindness Amid Slip-Ups: Navigating the Path to Change

As always, don’t forget to show kindness to yourself – remember that slip ups are inevitable, so be open to forgiving yourself on the occasions that you fall back into the old habit.

Acknowledge the slip and how it makes you feel, then refocus your attention onto what is important to you and why you are trying out this new way of being.

As I mentioned above, this post is part of a series about the unhelpful thinking habits that we can fall into. You can find the other posts here:

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