Black and White Thinking

by Mark Sichel, LCSW and Alicia L. Cervini

"Always" and "never," polar opposite words, tend to characterize the vocabulary of black and white thinkers. Black and white thinking means seeing the world only in terms of extremes. If things aren't "perfect," then they must be "horrible." If your child isn't "brilliant" then he must be "stupid." If you're not "fascinating" then you must be "boring." Yikes! What a tough way to live! In real-life, situations are almost always shades of gray, not black or white. Falling victim to black and white thinking tends to exacerbate depression, marital conflict, anxiety, and a host of other everyday problems. Give yourself and the ones you love a break and discover the beauty of shades of gray.

When small children are learning to use words and organize their thoughts, it is normal and expected for them to see and express their world in very black and white terms. When a young child feels they are not loved, they feel they must be hated. When a child feels his or her parents don't pay enough attention to them, that child will say, "You never pay attention to me." Developmental psychologists call this primitive thinking.

Unfortunately, under duress, adults often regress to primitive thinking. Adults are most prone to regressing to primitive thinking when they are having a hard time and feel overwhelmed by their own emotions. A regression, in psychoanalytic parlance, is a backsliding from mature functioning and thinking to immature ways of functioning and thinking. For that one moment, when the adult starts relying on the words "always" or "never," and seeing the world in black and white terms, they are slipping back to the way they saw the world as a child.

Here are some examples of people who fell prey to black and white thinking. Listen to the language that they use to express themselves:

Charlotte*, a married woman in her forties with a young child, was suffering from what is called dysthymia, or mild depression. She came into my office telling me that she never felt happy any more, that she always felt disappointed with her husband, and that she feared she would never feel good again as long as she lived. She said that she had nothing to look forward to anymore. She reported that she had always been a person who was not easily satisfied and that she only prayed that her daughter would not be like her. As Charlotte realized that her extreme language was making her situation seem worse instead of better, she learned to correct her black and white thinking. Charlotte was able to get a better handle on the events that triggered her chronic reactions of depression.

Joseph, an aspiring actor who supported himself as a carpenter, also had a problem with black and white thinking whenever he felt anxious. Despite favorable reviews in several plays and some success being cast in commercials, Joseph reported feeling overwhelming anxiety whenever he had to audition for a role. He always prepared thoroughly for his auditions, and he always became uncontrollably anxious starting a week before the audition. He was never able to do a good job in the audition, he told me, and he felt he would never overcome his anxiety. He felt sure he would always have to support himself as a carpenter. When Joseph realized that black and white thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, he made an effort to see his situation for what it was: a mix of the good and the not-so-good. With his newfound appreciation for shades of gray, Joseph was much happier, less anxious and more successful in his career.

When you learn to recognize the spectrum of gray in the difficult experiences you encounter in your life, you will be better equipped to come out on top. Regression is not a foregone conclusion when you feel stressed, angry, overwhelmed, confused, or just plain fed up with another person. You CAN start to recognize when you are giving-in to black and white thinking, and then make the choice to banish those extreme thoughts in favor of healthy living.

*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.


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