Black and white thinking – also known as all-or-nothing thinking – splits your world neatly into one category or another. For example, a student may say to themselves, “Either I get a high distinction for my maths test, or I may as well just drop out”, or a football player might say, “Either I make the A team this year or I might as well stop playing”. 

If you’re experiencing depression, it’s common to fall into black-and-white thinking. You might focus a lot on your perceived failings, what you should have done differently in a situation and not surprisingly you end up feeling low. Black-and-white thinking also plays a role if you’re experiencing anxiety. A panic attack can make you think about a situation as either completely safe or completely unsafe.

Thinking in the grey

Although your brain might be used to putting things into simple categories, the ambiguous world we live in means that most situations in life are actually better looked at in shades of grey. None of us are absolute failures or successes, and thinking in these terms is unhelpful

How to challenge black and white thinking

Shifting your thinking can be difficult but with the right support, you can learn some helpful strategies. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a very effective way to address black and white thinking. It is a process where you are encouraged to replace unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving with more helpful approaches. It certainly doesn't happen overnight but with time and professional help, it is a very effective treatment. Consider the following three steps:

  1. Reframe your thinking. Catch yourself in the middle of a thought and challenge whether it is true or not. Are you really a terrible partner? Does your boss really hate you? Is it more accurate to think: ‘I might not have been at my best today, but my partner loves me and I can work to communicate better.’ Or ‘My boss doesn’t need to constantly reassure me, she’ll tell me if there’s an issue.’
  2. Words like ‘never’ and ‘every’ are not helping you. Catch yourself using ‘absolute’ words and rethink them as ‘sometimes’ or ‘every now and again’.
  3. Acknowledge and accept that life is filled with uncertainty. You don’t have all the answers all of the time. It’s completely fine to say, ‘I don’t know, I need to think about that more.’

What’s next?

You can learn more about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy treatments and where to access them on the Beyond Blue website. There are also a number of CBT websites that walk you through the steps, such as MoodGym.

Related reading: When your inner critic is giving you a tough time

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