ThoughtBuster: Busting Black-and-White Thought Patterns

All or nothing thinking - Anxiety in Children

Growing up, I believed that being good at something was solely a function of raw talent. I was also the queen of extremes. Here’s what that deadly combination looked like:

My first time playing miniature golf, I went 50 over par. I would’ve been close to 100 over, but I threw my golf club across the course in frustration while screaming, “I quit! I’m never going to be good at this.”

The first board game I ever played was Monopoly–introduced to me by my older brother. After a few rounds, he’d taken over almost every property and began levying hefty taxes. I lost it and announced, “This game stinks! I’m always going to lose.” (Then I flung the board along with the little green houses and red hotels at my unsuspecting sibling… this was my signature move, if you haven’t guessed.)

As I grew, I learned to regulate my physical reactions (thank goodness!), yet a solid imprint of black-and-white thinking lingered behind. What is black-and-white thinking?

Black-and-white thinking–also known as all-or-nothing thinking–is when one views the world in absolutes. It’s a reductionist mindset where situations are often boiled down to two options: I’m good at this or bad at this; This will be a success or failure; This is awesome or this is terrible.

Black-and-white thinking is a typical cognitive distortion (inaccurate thoughts that reinforce negative emotions or thinking), a hallmark of anxious or depressed individuals, and a platform for perfectionism. Sounds fun, huh? It gets worse.

Black-and-white thinking is often followed by “should” statements and self-blame: “I should be better than I am” or “I am to blame for my shortcomings.”  In sum, thinking in absolutes instead of shades of grey contributes to stress, worry, and overall lack of well-being.

If your child or student exhibits black-and-white thinking, what can you do? Try these 4 techniques:

1. Start using the word “and,” instead of “or.”

Original: “This class is terrible or amazing.”

Replacement: “This class has some interesting parts and some more challenging parts.

2. Speak in shades of grey by reducing absolute words (e.g. everything, always).

Original: “I’ll never be good  at this.”

Replacement: “I’m not good at this now, but with practice I could get better.”

3. Use a sliding scale of probability from 0 to 100.

Original: “I’m never going to get into college.”

Replacement: “The probability I’m going to get into college is X%”

4. Change your “should” language.

Original: “I should be studying more.”

Replacement: “Studying more would be helpful for me.”

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3 thoughts on “ThoughtBuster: Busting Black-and-White Thought Patterns”

  1. “…when one views the world in absolutes.”

    My son just had one of his very worst days yesterday. He revealed that he thinks he’s depressed and has been a long time. The entire day he talked only in absolutes: “I have no purpose, I’m bad at everything, I annoy everyone…” His therapist was shocked to see him without his “sparkle” that she’s grown to love and look forward to.

    A friend shared this article with me today and it was exactly what I needed! My son is a very concrete thinker (terrible with apologies and reading between the lines, needs exact time — not rounded off, etc.). I never related it to his self-esteem and emotions, but of course it crosses those boundaries. What a great insight I so desperately needed.

    We will work on implementing the 4 action items. I know it will take time, but we will spark some improvement.

    Penny Williams
    Author of “What to Expect When Parenting Children with ADHD” and “Boy Without Instructions”
    Parent of 2e teen with ADHD, autism, and LDs

  2. Wow this is so me,y whole life. Even as of today getting turned down for a job I really wanted saying I should have never went into the military I should have gone to college. I’m a screw up, I can’t do anything right. My daughter who is 7 shows black and white thinking
    so other than these four steps what ca. Be done? I feel like I’m too old to change and nothing no matter how hard I try is going to get better

    • We’re never to old to change. I have a daughter who is 8 and more than ever I realize I need to change for myself but also for her. She will learn that we’re all growing and can all work towards a goal – no matter what age. You can do it! We both can


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