Thinking Traps II: Black and White Thinking

Part II in the Thinking Traps series. Looking at Cognitive Distortions from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

“If she can’t be counted on, she isn’t worth knowing”. Carol* was on the verge of breaking up with one of her latest best friends, Renee. Carol separated the world into two types of people – good people and bad people. She had thought that Renee was a good person, but as it had turned out she was a baddy.

Roy* had the same issue, but with workplaces. Roy had been in seven jobs in the last 5 years. His work experiences always started well – he was a hard worker and was eager to please. However as soon as something went wrong, he quickly quit and didn’t look back.

Good and evil. Wrong and right. The human mind and human culture seem to tend to split things into two categories. Dualism. This is no doubt natural to some degree. Pleasure is our reward. Pain our punishment. Pleasure is good and pain is bad. From this pleasure/pain dichotomy probably springs much of our black and white thinking.

However, most things are far too complex to divide into two categories. Very few things are all bad or all good. Take people. People are the most complex of organisms. People are capable of great selfishness and selflessness. People crave connection and crave independence. A person can be one day our collaborator and the next our competitor. Far from simply black and white, people are complex.

The list of goes on: Technology is both saving lives and taking jobs. Economic growth is lifting people out of poverty and destroying the environment. No matter what the aspect of life, the closer we look the more the black and white breaks down. In every good lies a little bad and in every bad lies a little good:

Black and white thinking can be harmful. With others, it makes us blind to the faults of the “good”, and to the gifts of the “bad”. With ourselves, it makes feel entitled when we feel we’re “good”, and depressed and worthless when “bad”. It can confuse us – “why is she acting so nice if she is bad”? “I thought he was good; how could he have done that”?

What to do about black and white thinking? One way is to notice the grey. Carol started to say, “Renee is fun to be around, but she is not very dependable”. Carol learnt to call Renee when she wanted to have a good time, but not to rely on her. Roy started to write pros and cons lists about jobs to be able to see both sides of things. He became less disappointed when the honeymoon was over. Having a more nuanced view of things helped him to better cope.

* names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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