9 signs you’re a ‘black and white’ thinker (and how it limits you)

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Black and white thinking is something that’s easy to fall into. 

But if you find that you’re a black and white thinker it’s very important to become self-aware about it and why it’s happening. 

In fact, black and white thinking has a purpose but it also has big downsides that can hold you back from reaching your potential.

First, what is black and white thinking?

Black and white thinking is when you think in absolutes. 

It’s not only that you think this way, you believe the thoughts you have and consider them to be a reasonable assessment of reality. 

It’s clear that black and white thinking can be helpful and necessary in some situations:

“This person is dangerous, I need to get away!”

Or;

“I’m in love with her, if I don’t tell her before she leaves the country I’ll never have the chance!”

But in most situations black and white thinking can actually hold you back.

Here are the signs that you’re stuck in too much black and white thinking… 

Let’s dive in…

1) You use and think in absolute terms 

If you often use and think in absolute terms it’s a definite sign you’re engaging in too much black and white thinking

Common examples include words like “always,” “never,” “hopeless,” “perfect,” “useless” or “crazy.”

Your mindset is swamped with these ways of thinking about the world, yourself, other people and current events that are quite absolute and it seems obvious that this is an accurate approach. 

In fact, you may find it confusing and strange that some around you don’t think in this way. 

How it can hold you back: There are many shades of gray, and when you use too many absolute terms you may end up creating a way of seeing the world that doesn’t leave much room for mystery or opportunity. 

2) You divide people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’

There’s no doubt that we have valid experiences of other people and often come to think of somebody as generally more “good” or “bad” based on our perceptions and their behavior towards us. 

But if you notice that you start to categorize people as good or bad on the turn of a dime and then extend it to whole groups, this is a dangerous trend. 

That’s because you end up writing off or embracing people on strict and often narrow categories that limit the range of what you experience and find in life. 

How it can hold you back: Seeing people in black and white can blind you to the many potential friendships, relationships and connections you can make in life. 

3) You either like something or hate it

There are times everyone has a visceral reaction to an activity, place, person or situation, and sometimes they’re justified. 

You walk into a doctor’s office and it smells terrible. You get a bad vibe and you just hate it!

Fair enough…

But if you find that almost everything in your life is either hated or loved, you may be engaging in too much black and white thinking. 

How it can hold you back: I used to fall into this a lot and the issue is that if you write off an entire city as somewhere you hate or think of a whole career as something you will always love you often get thrown for a loop and very disappointed by reality, which is far more complex and surprising.

4) You aren’t willing to consider new ideas and experiences 

The next form of black and white thinking occurs in general openness in terms of new ideas and experiences

When you’re a black and white thinker it often means you’ve drawn a sort of roadmap for everything in life. 

This means you’ve already concluded what you like and don’t like and decided what’s out of bounds or agreeable. 

The result can be a real aversion to trying something new, even if it’s just something like going skiing, or something more intellectual like considering the ideas of existentialism. 

“No, I know I won’t like it!”

How it can hold you back: Without trying new things and being at least somewhat open, there’s no real way to know for sure that you’re not missing out on enriching and valuable experiences. 

5) You think about the future in absolutes 

The future is unknown, and even if you do everything in your power, you can’t know for sure what will happen. 

That’s why black and white thinking is often part of an anxiety or depressive issue. 

People may try to think of the future in absolutes to feel a sense of calm or to reassure themselves that they understand it. 

Alternately, they may think of the future in a very pessimistic way as part of a depressive disorder or outlook. 

How it can hold you back: The future is unknown. If we think about it in absolutes (positive or negative) we delude ourselves and become less prepared for the reality that the present is all we can control right now.

6) You’re usually either very happy or very sad

Thinking in black and white can often lead to feeling either very happy or very sad. 

It’s not just that you feel that way, in fact, but that your mental framing and outlook is that life is either very good or very bad. 

You have a need to feel sure you’re either doing very well or very poorly and find it hard to accept times and experiences that may actually be somewhat unremarkable and not particularly enjoyable or horrible.

How it can hold you back: This kind of black and white thinking can lead to a lot of impatience. Imagine you’re a diamond miner who turns around just before you hit the motherlode because you’re sure things are going terribly and won’t change. Wrong move! 

7) You refuse to do extra or different duties at work

Technology is accelerating at a rate we’ve never seen before, and many jobs are changing. 

One of the signs you’re stuck in patterns of black and white thinking is that you’re very obstinate about taking on new duties at work or changing anything about your role. 

Even when fairly compensated, you may feel very attached to the idea that only X is your duty and you won’t even consider shifting partly in Y, because it’s “not your job.”

How it can hold you back: Jobs and careers are always changing. It’s important to remain at least partly adaptable in order to continue growing and be able to meet challenges – and seize opportunities – that arise. 

8) You either want to be completely in love or alone

Black and white thinking can lead to very stark ways of looking at romance:

It’s either love or nothing. 

You’re either going to marry somebody or they’re just “some person.”

To be fair, there can come a time in knowing or dating someone when you do have to decide if you’re in or out. 

But judging love as 100 or nothing can be very limiting. 

How it can hold you back: this can be similar to classifying people over simplistically. Sometimes our feelings towards people change, and it’s important to also be open to falling in love even if it doesn’t happen right away.

9) You’re unwilling to agree to disagree 

There are many situations where you have to work or be around people you disagree with. 

You may even strongly disagree. 

But if you’re prone to black and white thinking this can feel close to impossible. 

You find it very hard to let a debate or strong disagreement go and move on.

How it can hold you back: There’s no way to avoid sometimes being around and interacting with people you disagree with. That’s why this can cause all sorts of problems in work, relationships and everyday life.

Here’s the thing… 

As I mentioned at the beginning, black and white thinking has its purpose. 

Especially for our early ancestors, thinking in black and white was sometimes necessary:

“I always find bison whenever I go to that one valley, I’m going back there!”

Or;

“I never feel good after I eat those plants, I’m staying away from them!”

But when black and white thinking gets incorporated into our psychology and mindset about the past, future and our own and other people’s wellbeing, it tends to be misleading. 

It traps us in our mind and divorces us from the power of the present moment and the capacity for change. 

Try your best to become aware of black and white thinking and avoid it whenever possible. 

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