By: Kayla LeLeux-LaBarge, PsyD
Dr. LaBarge is an organizational psychologist and senior consultant at Equilibria Leadership Consulting. She is a highly skilled leadership development facilitator and executive coach who applies her unique interdisciplinary skills to the workplace. She has delivered several seminars and trainings on professional authenticity and creating cohesive, employee-centered professional cultures that thrive. White Cloud Therapeutic services is excited that she agreed to write a guest bog for our site!
The Black and White Thinking Trap
Everyone falls into common mind traps known as cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are generally negative and automatic thoughts. They can distort reality and prevent us from seeing things as they really are. Black and white thinking is the cognitive distortion characterized by the use of polarizing thoughts.
With black and white thinking, your brain is only considering the extreme ends of a situation, rather than seeing the full spectrum of possible outcomes. Common language found in thoughts when black and white thinking is present includes “always, never, everyone.” It can also show up as this idea that one mistake sabotages everything else.
Consider an Example
Let’s say you are a successful entrepreneur who holds the belief, “I am intense.” This core belief activates a whole bunch of cognitive distortions, especially in social situations at work. When you are talking with a group of fellow employees or sharing thoughts in a team meeting, black and white thinking may have a tendency to show up as soon as the interaction is done.
An example of black and white thinking in this context might be, “I’m too intense for everyone; I always ruin meetings as soon as I speak; I never leave feeling good after I have shared in group settings.”
How the Mind Works
Black and white thinking exists because our brain is a great organizer and categorizer of information, but it tries to think as quickly as possible. It likes things to be simple, black and white, so it doesn’t have to spend too much time in problem-solving mode and can move onto the next “problem” at hand.
The issue is, that sometimes our brains sacrifice quality for speed when it comes to processing information and this “short cut” of only seeing dichotomies is a very real problem.
When we allow our mind to automatically polarize an experience or situation as black and white, we miss out on the ability to see the complexity and nuance of the situation. Nothing in the world exists as black and white. We are complex beings with complex interactions. We live in the grey, ambiguous space, much to our brains chagrin.
Escape this Mental Trap
But we don’t have to continue to fall into its mental shortcuts and traps. With awareness you can start to challenge black and white thinking in really easy ways, it just takes pausing and examining what your mind is trying to polarize.
Going back to the example of the black and white thoughts of “I’m too intense for everyone,” maybe someone shared how much they loved your energy and vibe at the last leadership meeting. But if you are stuck in black and white thinking about everything that may have went wrong, this really sweet moment will be missed.
Or maybe a presentation you gave at work last week went really well, but because a recent project pitch wasn’t as stellar, you thought “I never leave feeling good after I have shared in group settings.”
Challenge Your Distorted Thinking
The easiest way to challenge black and white thinking is by reminding yourself that nothing exists as only this or only that, black or white. Challenge yourself to see the grey areas in your thinking and in the situation that triggered the polarized thinking. Ask yourself, “Is everything totally one way?”
And I’m willing to bet when you ask your mind to solve this new problem of finding the grey area, it will be successful in finding something that contradicts black and white thinking. Notice the glimmers of goodness or progress that exist when you really look.
Open Yourself to New Perspectives
This powerful and quick cognitive challenge helps to “reset” your mind and remind it that nothing exists in extremes. Practicing this skill any time you notice black and white thinking will decrease it happening automatically in the future and will increase your openness to many perspectives, especially in situations that trigger distorted thinking.