What GOOD is Black and White Thinking?

If Black & White Thinking Never Works
How come so many people DO it?

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC

Image from Kozzi.com

I have received some version of one of the two questions above more than a few times recently.

Since I’m now guiding my writing by the number of blog comments or questions a topic generates, I’m thinking it’s time to turn my attention back to Black and White Thinking.

As I implied in my introductory article, Black and White Thinking is probably the most insidious of the Nine Challenges identified by The Challenges Inventory™.

In Moving from Black or White to GREY I went on to say, “It’s like a VIRUS: it infects, proliferates, and spreads to others.”

  • Until addressed and overcome, I asserted, black and white thinking will chain one arm to that well referenced rock and the other to that proverbial hard place. At that point, every single one of life’s other Challenges will loom larger than they would ever be otherwise.
  • With every teeny-tiny step you take into the grey – away from the extremes of black and white – life gets better, and the next step becomes easier to take.
  • By the end of the Black and White Thinking Series, what I want for you is to be in a place where you are ready to change your life by transforming your thinking – one small step for man, one giant leap for man-KIND!

Be sure to check out the sidebar for how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>

But does it EVER work?

Black and white thinking? Sure, it works sometimes.  I’m sure you’ve heard about “the exception that proves the rule.” 

Here is the short version of my answer to the implied question of
WHEN it works:

Although there are better ways to get the job done, it can work for you when you are mired in a decision quandary and absolutely MUST move forward.

  • It reduces rumination as a result of “choice overload” in a manner that unlocks brain-freeze.
  • It lowers the expectation that you will be “perfectly satisfied” with whatever choice you make, ultimately leaving you happier than you might have been otherwise – either way.
  • Parenting small children aside, it usually works best when the individual making the choice decides to employ it – not as well when others force a black and white decision upon them. (Ask any parent about how well their teens react to either/or enforcements: they can sulk for days!)
  • It is helpful when making decisions during bona-fide crises situations, where choices are reduced dramatically to begin with (the reason that many of us can say that we are “good in a crisis”)

But for the MOST PART . . .

cognitive hazardBlack and White Thinking is nasty stuff.  Usually. It does a number on our self-esteem, our emotions, our productivity and our relationships.

It’s a significant contributing factor to the problems of eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, anxiety, depression, Aspergers, Autism and ADD — and even “garden variety” struggles with ACTIVATION in everyday folk.

Black and white thinking answers to a few other names as well: all-or-nothing thinking, splitting, dichotomous reasoning, binary opposition framing, perfectionism – and a few more, some that include expletives that might get me flamed.

It’s what psychologists call a cognitive distortion — typically defined in a manner similar to the Wikipedia definition below:

exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate the effects of psychopathological states, especially depression and anxiety.

. . . thoughts that cause individuals to perceive reality negatively, … interfer[ing] with the way a person perceives an event [frequently leading to] an overall negative outlook on the world.

It does its worst in secret – when we are not consciously aware it is anywhere near us.

But nothings ALL bad, right?

All things in moderation, as they say.  We don’t want to get black and white about black and white thinking either.

In this article in the series, I enumerate a few situations when black and white thinking might be useful, discuss why we slip into it so easily at other times, and include a technique or two right out of the Marshal Arts playbook: using its force against it.

Consciously employed, we can force it’s energy to bend to our desires for a life of ongoing accomplishment and joy.




LET ME BE PERFECTLY CLEAR.  If you (or those you love) are caught in its grip as part of the symptom profile of one of the disorders characterized by the extreme end of black and white thinking, this article DOES NOT APPLY and will not be helpful.

If you are in the place where almost every reaction to almost everything you experience is black or white  – wonderful or awful, perfect or worthless, all right or all wrong (or shuttling rapidly between either pole) – you need more hands-on help than ANY blog or website can offer.

Please allow yourself to reach out to professionals in your area – especially to those who work with cognitive retraining techniques. Your life is worth fighting for.

In extreme cases, black and white thinking IS all bad – currently.

Only once you are further along in your recovery will you be able to work on using it to your advantage.  It will make your symptom profile MUCH worse. Right now, it might as well be poison.

Those of us who slip into black and white thinking occasionally already know how much worse it usually seems to make “everything” – or would if we truly paid attention to what happens when we indulge.

So why do so many people do it?

The brain has evolved to be a pattern-recognition machine. With every new experience, it searches its databanks to see if there is anything similar it can use for information to help handle whatever is going on currently. Quickly.

Our brain craves certainty – even though there is very little in life about which we can be absolutely certain.

Philip Martin artwork

Philip Martin artwork

If our genetic ancestors had been able to survive an attack from something that was trying to snack on them, it would certainly have improved their odds of living long enough to pass down their genes if the brain held onto whatever led up to the situation – and what they did to get out of it. Pronto.

The ones whose brains did not hold on to the prior experience were left to figure things out all over again.  In the process, they probably became dinner.

We don’t have much of their genetic material in our DNA – few of them lived long enough to raise a family.

As a result, whenever we are faced with a situation in which a decision is required, we might as well be “hard-wired” to jump to rapid conclusions based on prior experience.  Once Mr. Amygdala has sounded the alarm, remember, it becomes difficult to access our PFC (Pre-Frontal Cortex) to make complex decisions.

A part of our PFC is capable of a sort-of cognitive over-ride, but some of us have less “juice” in that part than others.  In addition, science has discovered that the PFC further weakens when we remain in this highly-aroused state. [Mind & Brain Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 4 – study reviewed by Amy Arnsten, Carolyn M. Mazure and Rajita Sinha]

Skipping quickly to one end of the decision spectrum in a global fashion terminates the search for solutions — and puts an end to the escalating arousal of stress. Giving decision anxiety the boot feels good.  In order to DO that, however, we ignore evidence to the contrary – which is rarely the best idea for most of the decisions of modern living.

Indulging in black and white thinking to terminate what feels like an endless decision loop is a bubble under plastic – it shuffles the problem elsewhere.

Considering multiple alternatives is just as bad.


Ironically, “over-choice” rumination is actually one more flavor of black and white thinking.

We aren’t allowing ourselves to “settle” for anything less than the BEST solution (or what? it’s the worst?). Instead, we spend precious cognitive resources sorting and sifting through a seemingly endless loop of possibilities.

The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle: good enoughWhy oh why does that spot seem so tough to find?

Hint: We start looking for THE sweet spot instead of A sweet spot – notice I said somewhere in the middle, not smack dab center! (It’s so easy to slip into black and white thinking, isn’t it?)

What works, then?

Practically nothing works all the time, for everyone and for every situation – breathing, maybe, as long as the objective is to stay alive.

Below are a couple of tips and a few examples that I encourage you to look at as guidelines worth considering.  To come up with your own, look through your own experience for times when black and white thinking worked for you. Sherlock how and why it worked, then extrapolate to the concept.

1. Let someone or something else narrow the choices for you.

This is not as specious as it sounds. It is not all that different from asking for advice and deciding to take it.

It’s simply not worth the time and energy to consider every single option before we make a choice.  As we practice asking for help deciding, we stop ruminating over the things we did NOT consider, which leaves time, energy and cognitive bandwidth available to focus on what’s really important to us. (Those of us who are more likely to live by the lone ranger approach will experience an additional side benefit.)

For purchasing decisions, decide on one or two “experts” (or expert sites), and let them choose:

  • Consumer Reports helps you narrow down options considerably, for example.
  • Tell the “geniuses” at the Apple store what you need to do, and let them choose the best technology to get the job done.  Ask for a second, cheaper alternative if you fear you are being “sold.”  Narrow the field before you attempt to decide.
  • Shop for clothes where stylish friends with an economic status similar to yours shop, and ask their advice.  Then TAKE it — or get oppositional and choose the one they don’t like, but don’t continue your quest for “better” options.

Unless you are shopping for a once in a lifetime event – your wedding, for example – does it REALLY matter if you make the very “best” choice?

Even then, however, many brides quickly narrow that choice down to TWO: when and where to get their mother’s bridal gown altered.

Navigating Menus

When I go out to eat at a place where the menu seems endless, I am frequently overwhelmed. If I am with friends, I pretend I can only order from a sub-menu of whatever they are having.

  • The only decision I have to make is that of ordering LAST.  I can do eeny-meeny to pick my dinner, if need be, but I usually “me too” the first thing that sounds good at all.
  • If I am eating alone I sometimes ask what the waitress recommends, or what everybody else seems to love that particular night.
source: click image

source: click image

When nothing else seems likely to work and the menu is huge, I either order whatever I ate last (without opening the menu at all), or pretend I’m am restricted to one quadrant of one page, chosen in advance or at random.

Either way, I must remind myself that this is probably not my last meal – or I’m likely to be perusing the menu until the restaurant closes for the night.

An old friend always asks about the specials, appearing to be listening politely, before responding, “I’ll have number one.”  (Sometimes he isn’t even sure what’s on its way until it is set before him.)

You get the idea.

2. Stop comparing lives and choices and let the little things COUNT

    • As long as you look for them, you will always be able to find people who seem to do “anything” better, have “everything” we’d like to have, and seem “totally successful” at life itself.

Don’t look for them. 

  • Focus on what what’s good about your life.  I know how lame that sounds – truly I do – but it primes your brain for confidence in your own decisions.

    click image for source

    I can tell you from personal experience, no matter how lousy life looks in the moment, there’s always something positive – even if it seems very, very tiny to begin with (and you feel very, very pitiful even naming it!)

    I promise you that for more than a few days this year alone, some of the items on my gratitude list make me sound like the poor little match girl, desperately seeking a positive vision to give me a moment’s relief from my miserable life.

    Focusing on the positive is one of the few ways I know out of the misery – besides dying of hypothermia and being carried off to heaven like that poor shivering child, huddling by the snowy street trying to sell matches.

    Once you get in the habit of looking at your own life for what’s going right, your brain will begin to “pattern match” that right feeling too.  You’ll begin to notice that choices become easier to make, and that you indulge in black and white thinking less and less often.

    Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz recommends a simple exercise:

    At the end of each day, in a notepad kept by your bed, write down two or three things that you’re grateful for.

    Get in the habit, he goes on to say, of noticing about what you’re grateful for in your decisions, instead of what you’re disappointed with.

    So as you make decisions, what is good about them will become more salient, and what’s disappointing will become less salient, and you’ll be more satisfied with the decisions you’ve made.

    Zen Habits

    My version of the gratitude list comes with a caveat: make sure the items on your gratitude list are LITTLE things – tiny – especially if you have already embraced the gratitude list habit. Another way to approach the task is to list ordinary things we normally take for granted. Any tiny thing will do, and let even the tiniest of moments count.

    Not only will this increase positive feelings over time, it also puts a nail in the coffin of black and white thinking.

    Most of us are already pretty good at noticing the BIGGER things — or our sense of relief for help with something we wouldn’t have been able to manage on our own.

    Beyond Supernanny - click for source

    Beyond Supernanny – click for source

    We’ don’t need to remind ourselves to be grateful for what I term “the huge unusual.”

    Who wouldn’t be grateful for a sudden influx of cash just when they really needed it, or finding out that a recently discovered lump is benign?

    Most of us would be overwhelmed with gratitude upon finally hearing that a friend or relative is alive and well in an area that has experience a major disaster situation reported on the news.

    We are pretty darned grateful for “relief” in other situations too, big or small:

    • The weather cooperated “for once” and our outdoor party was a smashing success.
    • Our son actually remembered to fill up the tank, so we could use the car to go straight to work on a morning when we were already running late.
    • Our teenaged daughter didn’t wear those jeans she borrowed, so we could grab them off her pile of discards, throw them on and be out the door in a flash when we suddenly needed to.

    Day to day miracles

    The little things in life and the many things we take for granted seem to slip by unnoticed, unless we make it a POINT to recall them every day.  I’ll bet THESE items aren’t on a great many gratitude lists:

    • indoor plumbing
    • knowing how to read and write
    • the miracles of modern dentistry, or
    • body parts that work as designed.

    Nor are products that make cleaning easier and faster, phones in our pockets rather than on street corners, or the existence of public transportation (even when that darned bus seems to run late more often that not) – not on most gratitude lists, in any case.

    Here’s another of the places where you can use black and white thinking against itself:

    Quickly jot down three small (or overlooked) things for which you can be grateful.

    Then say to yourself, “Too big!” and look for three items even smaller.

    Do it one more time, then write the three smallest items on your gratitude list for the day.

    The more times we consciously employ black and white thinking to work FOR us, the more likely we are to notice it when it’s shutting us down — before it makes it tough to activate.

    BEFORE next week’s article:

    Start your own Three Tiny Things Gratitude Journal™

    Keep it next to your bed, along with a favorite writing implement. Start writing down Three Tiny Things™ you can appreciate every night.  Pay attention to the effect on the number of Tiny Things you notice throughout the day. Notice what noticing does to your mood and activation level.

    Come back and share your results in the comments. I really want to know how things are working for you – it will guide what I share next.  I will shuffle the order of articles to come based on what I hear back from YOU.  Free coaching – if you’ll take advantage of the opportunity.

    No TIME to read all this stuff? Want more help?

    man-on-phoneOnce my own life recovers from a protracted repair deficit situation where even the ability to use the systems I have put in place was taken from me, watch for the announcement of an upcoming 12-week TeleClass on Modular Success Systems.

    It will help you sort through a great many of the “functional modules” so that you can design an action plan guaranteed to be easier than what most of you are currently attempting to work with.

    Classes are a much cheaper alternative to hiring my personal coaching services (and the FIRST time I offer a new class is always your least expensive option by far!). As always, class size will be small to allow for personal attention, so don’t miss the announcement if you want to make sure you sign up before the first class fills.

    If you already know that this is something you are going to want to be part of, let me know in a comment below and I’ll make sure you have advanced notice (don’t forget to fill in your name and email on the comment form or I won’t be able to contact you).

    Meanwhile, keep reading as often as you can! To double the benefit, whenever I post a new article, make it a habit to pick at least one of the Related Content links to read at the same time (embedded in the text and duplicated in the Related Links at the bottom of every post). If you’ll “like” or comment after the pages you’ve read, it will help you keep track and will point others to posts you find especially helpful (as well as helping ME to know what you want me to write about).

    Another of The Black & White topic articles from
    The Challenges Inventory™ Series
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    Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”

    As always, if you want notification of new articles in this series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy

    IN ANY CASE, DO stay tuned.
    There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come
    Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

    Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some one-on-one (couples or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading any of the articles of this Series, click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end, or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page. Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

    You might also be interested in some of the following articles
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    For links in context: run your cursor over the article above
    the dark grey links will turn dark red;
    (subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read,
    but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them)

    – and check out the links to other Related Content in each of the articles themselves –

    Related articles on ADDandSoMuchMore.com
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    Articles in Related Series

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    BY THE WAY: Since ADDandSoMuchMore.com is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link BACK, reblog, like, follow, or comment on the article, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

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