Do you unwittingly use this unhelpful thinking style?
Unhelpful thinking styles mess with our emotions and behaviours
You are probably unsurprised to read that the way we think has an impact on our emotions and behaviours. If we think “I’m going to mess this up” before giving a speech, we are going to be quite terrified, anticipating mistakes, and it’s probably going to show in our body language and voice. Whereas if we think “I’m going to give this my best shot and that’s good enough” then you can imagine how much more relaxed we’re likely to feel and act. So our experience of an event can be very different according to our thinking patterns.
We all have different thinking patterns that develop according to our experiences, influences, and beliefs. This kind of thinking that leads to unhelpful feelings and behaviours we call unhelpful thinking styles. Most of the time these unhelpful thinking styles are happening without us being aware of them. The more awareness we have of how they affect our emotions and behaviours, the more we are in a position to start to change them.
In this article I’m going to outline one of the most common unhelpful thinking styles I come across as a therapist - Black and White thinking. I’ll explain how you can recognise it, what negative impacts it can have, and what steps you can start to take to change it.
Black & White Thinking
Also known as all-or-nothing thinking, black and white thinking is about dividing our world into extremes. It’s seeing things in two distinct categories only, with nothing in between. Words like impossible, always, never, forever, perfect, wrecked, everyone, no-one, impossible, worst, hopeless, disastrous often point to black and white thinking.
Examples of black & white thinking:
There’s no point in doing it if I can’t do it perfectly
I lost my temper with the kids, I’m a terrible Mum
I didn’t get the job, I’m unemployable
I have nothing interesting to say, I don’t know why anyone would want me as a friend
I’ll never be happy whilst I’m single
Sugar is bad
I shouldn’t wear shorts with my body
If I have a nap during the day I’m lazy
Ouch! Do you notice how harsh these thoughts are? It’s no wonder that black and white thinking leads to big, uncomfortable emotional reactions, and encourages us to behave in unhelpful ways.
It’s understandable that we instinctively prefer things to be in neat little categories, known and certain, rather than ambiguous and grey. However so much of life is much more subtle, complex, layered and unknown. Our world is filled with greys! But we like to make them black or white as it can seem more certain and safer. However black and white thinking is far from helpful…
The negative impacts of black & white thinking
It makes us more judgemental of others. We see people as good vs bad, brilliant vs hopeless, losing sight of the fact that humans are much more complex than two categories. It can reduce our empathy and compassion and drive us away from others.
It feeds our inner critic. Oh our inner critic dines on black and white thinking! Yum yum. Who wants to make their inner critic stronger? Not me.
It is a sign of perfectionism. If we can notice and work on our black and white thinking we can make a big impact on letting go of our perfectionism.
We talk ourselves out of opportunities. When we see ourselves as completely awful or hopeless we are less likely to try new challenges, take a chance, or put ourselves out there for new work or social opportunities. Our world can get smaller.
It fuels depression and anxiety. Black and white thinking is experienced by people with both depression and anxiety. This style of thinking will make both worse.
How to start letting go of black & white thinking
Notice the thought
Pay attention to your thoughts - this can take time and practice. Look out for extremes and the key words I listed above.
Mindfully acknowledge the thought
You might say to yourself gently “This is black and white thinking” or “Ah here it is”. It’s important to be gentle or neutral rather than harshly berating yourself when you notice it. Otherwise you’ll just increase the discomfort/stress. By mindfully drawing our attention to the thinking style we are creating space between us and our thoughts. This space is so helpful because then we can learn to choose our actions rather than just react!
NOTE: Some people may like to challenge the thought (“That’s not realistic/true”) although challenging the thought and arguing with yourself as to how true it is may increase the struggle and distress you are feeling. In most cases I prefer to focus on mindfully acknowledging and then gently exploring with the following tool…
Explore the greys
Remind yourself that there is highly likely more than two categories and life is filled with nuances. Some of the questions you might use to explore the greys:
What might I be missing from the picture?
Example: “I’m also all these positive things”, or “Mistakes are human, I’ve simply proven I’m human” or “I’m feeling this way about my body because of our culture.”
What else could be going on for that person?
Example: “He might be exhausted, or dealing with bad news, or going through something painful. It might have nothing to do with me”
Is there something more in the middle?
Example: “There’s positives and negatives to both. Neither is all good or all bad”
Can I find an exception?
Example: “I’m feeling bad I lost my temper at the kids, but there are many ways in which I’m a caring Mum"
What else is going on at the same time?
Example: “Yes, I made a big error on that report at work, but also my manager said I did a good job of the presentation, and got positive feedback from colleagues about my ideas in the meeting”
Can I brainstorm a number of possibilities rather than assume?
Example: “I may have missed out on the job, but I could have been the second choice out of many candidates. They may have hired internally. The position may not have been the right fit for me. There are many other jobs. My next interview may be the one”
Can I hold these two (or more!) possibilities at once?
What if I don’t have all the answers right now?
Where are the greys here?
Self-compassion is an important antidote for the inner critic. It can help us to tolerate painful experiences and emotions, and to become more mindful. Check out the beginners guide to self-compassion here.
Seek professional support
Therapists are trained in spotting unhelpful thinking styles and assisting you in changing them. If you are struggling to change your thinking style on your own, please know that you’re not alone. Many people require help from a therapist.
It is possible to experience the freedom of more flexible thinking which can have a huge impact on how you feel and the choices you make. Changing your thinking takes time, and may need the assistance of a professional. If you would like to explore and improve your thinking style, I’d love to work with you.