I’m a terrible person.
My sister is so beautiful and I’m so ugly.
My boyfriend is the most attractive person I know and I’ll never be as into anyone else again.
We all think of the world in black and white terms at times. From refusing to see the flaws in our loved ones, to being overly hard on ourselves, the human brain’s tendency to understand the world in either/or terms has a profound effect on our relationships.
The official psychological term for black and white thinking is “splitting.” At its extremes, splitting can be a symptom of mental illness like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). In everyday settings, it can simply hold us back from experiencing some of the richness of our lives and relationships.
Of course, the world is not an either/or place: Our lives are full of shades of gray. By seeing the world in black and white — rather than the complex rainbow it actually is — we may initially make it easier for ourselves to separate out good from bad, right from wrong, and beautiful from ugly. But this kind of thinking can be exhausting, sending us through constant ups and downs. And on a deep level, simplifying things into easy, binary terms robs us of much of the complexity that makes life and relationships so rich.
Ways Black and White Thinking is Holding Your Back
Does this line of thinking sound like yours? If it does, here are some ways black and white thinking may be holding you back — and why it’s worth embracing life’s shades of grey.
1. Black and white thinking can negatively impact your relationships
Your partner is the most wonderful person in the world — until they’re the worst. This cycle of love/hate, down/up, good/bad can be seriously stressful for any relationship. In some cases, these wild lows and highs can be a sign of something more serious than black and white thinking, like abuse, for which you deserve support. But in the context of otherwise healthy relationships, black and white thinking can impact your comfort with each other and prevent a deeper bond based on acceptance.
In family relationships and friendships too, quickly changing from thinking a loved one is perfect to feeling they’re awful can erode intimacy and trust. By seeing your loved one as either all good or all bad, you’re not letting yourself see them for what they are: a normal, fallible human just like you.
2. It can hurt your self-image
All of us have wondered if we’re “bad people” or “good people.” In reality, most of us are somewhere in between, with both bad and good qualities. When you think in black and white terms, however, you risk being overly self-critical or refusing to see your faults.
Black and white thinking can make you hypersensitive to others’ opinions and make it difficult to accept criticism without deep insecurity. That can prevent you from genuine growth and self-compassion.
3. It can hold you back from success
Like all aspects of life, work will have good days and bad days, and many days that are somewhere in between. But if you think in black and white terms, it’s easy to internalize every failure and have an unrealistic expectation of every success. As Tim Chaves writes for Forbes, black and white thinking in our professional lives can make us abandon projects as mere bumps in the road, due to a feeling that they are inevitably doomed to fail.
When we acknowledge that our professional lives, like every other aspect of life, are complex and may have pluses and minuses, we enable ourselves to learn and grow toward success.
4. It can literally change how you feel
According to psychological research, thinking in binary terms can actually change the way we perceive the world, effectively conditioning us to miss nuance.
In a 2016 study, Pomona college researchers found that participants’ perceptions of how someone was feeling changed depending on whether they were given black and white, or more fluid categories, to understand emotion. By conditioning you to see things in more binary terms, black and white thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it even harder to perceive nuance.
5. It can signal a deeper problem
While everyone experiences black and white thinking to some extent, extreme black and white thinking can also be a symptom of mental illness. People with Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, experience intense black and white thinking, which can in turn affect their perceptions of their relationships with others and with themselves.
While black and white thinking itself doesn’t mean you have Borderline Personality Disorder or any other mental illness, it’s definitely worth seeking out a therapist if you’re having a difficult time or feel distressed in any way because of it.
How Can I Leave Black and White Thinking Behind?
As with many self-defeating thought patterns, the first step beyond black and white thinking is simply to acknowledge that you’re doing it. This can be hard — after all, cognitive distortions can make our thought processes, well, distorted — but taking time to consciously examine your thoughts and question extremes can help.
A simple exercise involves thinking of binary or extreme words you might use to describe a person, relationship, or situation (bad/good; ugly/beautiful) and then imagine more nuanced ways to describe situations. It can also help to actively cultivate empathy.
For example, if you think your sister, who just hurt you, is a completely awful person, it may be useful to take a moment, pause, and ask yourself why she might have done what she did. And of course, it’s always helpful to see a brick-and-mortar or online therapist, who can help you address troubling thought processes or cycles.
Balanced Thinking Means a Richer Life
Black and white thinking can give us a measure of security. After all, who doesn’t want to think they have all the answers? But it can also cut us off from the complexity and richness of life.
Allowing ourselves to venture into uncertainty is, paradoxically, a way to see more clearly: not in black and white or even gray, but in complex, dazzling rainbow.