Black and white thinking will bury you, especially if you’re rigid about it

“It’s this way or that way.”

“It’s all or nothing.”

“This option or that option. That’s it.”

Notice the foreboding presence of the word “or” and the distinct lack of the word “and” in those mindsets.

The underlying message or energy of this thinking is “If you don’t do (insert opinion), then you’re clearly doing it “wrong”. Or you’re stupid, not read up enough or some other kind of deficiency.

This kind of black/white thinking, also called all/nothing thinking, is what psychologists call a cognitive bias. A thinking bias.

Either/or thinking is a mental frame of reference that operates under the conscious radar. So we all do it to some extent, we just don’t notice it. At least initially.

Initially, we’re too busy dealing with the content that we’re applying it to.

For example,

“Ford or General Motors.”

“Star Trek or Star Wars.”

“Vegetarian or meat eater.”

“Domestic violence — women are victims, men are not. Men are perpetrators, women are not.”

“Pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine”.

The funniest one I saw was recently on a religious billboard — “If you died tonight, heaven or hell?” Wow!

With any of these examples you’re either all in or you’re all out, nothing in between apparently.

Take note of

(1) the categories created and

(2) the use of the words “either” and “all”.

These are surface indicators of black and white thinking. Not always but it’s a sign post to check in on.

When the all/nothing thinking bias and energy are being applied, it makes many topics more contentious than they actually need to be. Such as race, religion and social causes.

The latter three topics for example, domestic violence, vaccines and religious faith, each warrant open discussion to review how one best manages it into or out of one’s life. Add the black/white or all/nothing thinking and it adds a lot of negative emotion. Usually, fear, shame and guilt.

Additionally, the all/nothing frame of reference that shrouds them makes civil discussion difficult. You spend so much mental energy trying to cut through the all/nothing framework and the judgments that come with it, that advancing the topic is like walking through mental mud.

Why is all/nothing thinking like walking through mental mud?

There are three components to what makes all/nothing thinking an invisible monkey on your back. The following three will be expanded upon:

1. All/nothing thinking creates an inbuilt pressure

2. Emotional topics further pressurize the inbuilt mental pressure adding insult to injury

3. Mental rigidity compounds both the inbuilt pressure and emotional pressure, increasing the risk for mental health problems.

1. The inbuilt pressure of all/nothing thinking

All/nothing thinking creates an inbuilt mental pressure. How does it do this?

The very nature of all/nothing thinking leaves you with only two options! Black or white. All or nothing. Either this OR that. Having only two options is in itself stressful!

It is possible that this reduction to two options is a way of coping by simplifying excess choices. But when the coping starts with two choices then it’s veering toward a cognitive bias.

When there’s only two options, this is how it plays out.

Say you don’t like option 1. Okay. So all you’re left with is option 2. That’s it.

That might be ‘good’ for a little while. You may absolutely love option 2 and all is good. You’re not interested in other options. Or at least this thinking bias makes you think so! So with option 2, it’s been “easy to decide”, you sit on it and get on with other things in life.

Then the inevitable happens. Information comes in somehow that challenges option 2. Information that doesn’t resonate or align with your belief, comfort or acceptance of option 2. It becomes extra information to process. It becomes a stone in your shoe.

This stone in your shoe, over time, becomes a psychological stress because the all/nothing thinking doesn’t automatically or easily look to find other options. The pressure builds and stress becomes distress.

Leaving yourself only two options in situations that may call for more options to at least be considered, becomes unrealistic fast. This inevitably creates distress.

2. Emotional topics further pressurize the inbuilt mental pressure, adding insult to injury

More often than not, many of our situations involve emotions of some sort. Happy and positive as well as frustrating and negative.

With all or nothing thinking however, intense emotion is guaranteed because of the inbuilt mental pressure that’s already unconsciously built up.

For example an emotional topic that includes safety, let alone safety of children, generates high energy emotions. High emotional energy around significant public interest issues, such as domestic violence or vaccinations, further creates a ticking time bomb through all/nothing thinking.

Which is why you often see certain topics that people define themselves by (e.g. race or religion) bring out some serious fundamental mindsets.

3. Mental rigidity compounds the pressure

Mental rigidity is the primary ingredient that makes all/nothing, black and white thinking a recipe for the development of depression and/or anxiety disorders.

Mental rigidity means holding on to the original notion for dear life, repeatedly and without any mental waver to allow other options in. This happens on a conscious level. However the motive for being mentally rigid, of which there can be many, is subconscious. There can be many reasons for this but let’s just stick to the subconscious “hold on to this notion for dear life because somehow it makes life easier in the short term”.

If an all/nothing cognitive bias is rigidly held on to or mentally endorsed repeatedly then stress, even positive stress, will become distress 100% of the time. It is the trajectory of not only black and white thinking but the deal is sealed with mental rigidity.

If not attended to, this built up distress continues to distort how most information is processed and emotional problems arise.

Back to the option 1 and 2 example from earlier.

“I didn’t like option 1, option 2 was my ‘saving grace’. Now option 2 is becoming unsatisfactory, what do I do? Option 1 again? That’s stressful or unsatisfactory. A very fleeting thought occurs around the potential of other options? BUT, that’s mental effort, scary, not possible, don’t have time, too expensive, (insert any justification)”.

In the beginning, the all/nothing thinking bias of 1 OR 2 had you settle for 2. Rather than generate possibilities. It’s helpful and even positive initially. For example, Ford only because General Motors cars apparently aren’t as good.

Add any emotional attachment to option 2 and you’re further invested in the cognitive bias. For example, buying a Ford car is much better spending of my money while I’d be completely wasting my money buying a General Motors car (apparently). Processing any perfectly legitimate information about a General Motors car isn’t going to be as easy compared to any information about Fords. Considering information about the General Motors car will have some mental resistance, you’ll be a little more closed off or defensive about it perhaps.

Another topic, for example vaccinations, may have you get into arguments with people more easily. With the mental resistance, you’re likely to think THEY are limited in their thinking on the topic, because they don’t accept the “option 2” side of it as quickly as you do. All while you’re limiting yourself from receiving and considering extra information about their “option 1” side of it. The irony!

Then you hold on to it rigidly or repeatedly without waver. You hold on for dear life because it’s served you well initially, or it’s more comfortable for some reason. It’s less to explain or justify perhaps! Now watch the stress creep in.

The mental pressure of option 2 only, plus the emotional opinion plus the repeated rigidity in holding on to that decision without flexible thinking around it, eventually develops to unhappiness. Then sadness, frustration, despondency, dissatisfaction, distress creep in.

There is a direct relationship between the INTENSITY of the highly charged emotion and the mental rigidity. There is some secondary gain to holding on to this all/nothing cognitive bias and it’s mostly happening subconsciously.

This is fertile soil for depression and anxiety to sprout. Simply because the thinking bias, the flaw in the frame of reference becomes unbearable. It’s become unmanageable because it’s reached its limits. Your life or quality of life has been limited and you’re wanting to break down the walls.

How do you dig yourself out of the suffocation of all/nothing thinking?

All/nothing, black and white thinking is a fundamental flaw of thinking and emotional distortion that psychologist assist clients to adjust. While the black and white thinking is common and can have some productive applications, a psychologist is equipped to help you

(1) readjust the high energy emotions magnifying the content and

(2) they help you mine for the secondary gains associated with rigidly holding on to the initial black and white thinking that’s gone astray.

One approach of many that can be applied is cognitive reframing, an effective and powerful way to open up the rigid limitations subconsciously created with black and white thinking.

We are exposed to topics and information that will trigger the black and white thinking bias often in our day to day life. Managing it realistically is the primary goal of this skills training with a psychologist. It’s a learning curve in the beginning but within 2–3 weeks it becomes a new thinking skill and life-long thinking asset.

Reducing the excessive nature of the black/white cognitive distortion opens up the space to discuss the content, generate other possibilities without stressing you out further — it is ‘new’ information for your psyche after all — and then support you in making more informed decisions.

When you find yourself stressed or frustrated with certain information, take 30 seconds to consider if you are doing all/nothing thinking. You’ll notice it if you find yourself considering you ONLY have two options and nothing else.

To start easing the mental pressure chamber, simply allow yourself to consider two other options. Even if they seem “far out” or “impossible”, just put them on the drawing board. No decisions need to be made. Simply let them be at that table for consideration.

From here the mental pressure chamber of all/nothing, black or white thinking, is well on the way to depressurizing and positively opening up your world.

Here’s to your soulful living Entrepreneur Soul,

Dr. Elizabeth Celi —

For your one on one consultation to weed out these kind of thinking distortions that just make life a harder, consider your options here.