‘Black and White Thinking’: How to Balance these Cognitive Extremes
‘The Truth,’ we’re told, is ‘out there.’
But what if it’s more complex than that?
What if there are multiple truths in our lives? Multiple versions of our stories, many ways of seeing ourselves (and others), myriad points of view, and countless ways of understanding events?
And what if we don’t even have to choose ‘the right one’ among them?
You’ve probably heard about ‘black and white thinking’. It’s a fairly popular concept and it’s referred to quite a lot in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Basically, it describes when we believe only one thing can be true at any one time (and it’s often an extreme kind of thing – like when something or someone is ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’).
When we’re thinking this way, we can tend to envision our whole lives according to this ‘truth’, and it’s easy to get stuck or stubborn and to consistently lead with that polarised belief (or, as the photo above implies, to consistently lead with either our ‘black foot’ or our ‘white foot’ – which can make for quite an awkward emotional gait).
So what might some alternatives be?
Overcoming black and white thinking is often written about in terms of learning to acknowledge ‘the shades of grey’ in between. Which seems a great place to start.
But maybe it’s also about simultaneously being able to balance the ‘black’ alongside the ‘white;’ to hold all the seemingly opposite possibilities at once. To know that there’s every chance of more than just one answer being true.
For there’s also a thing called ‘both/and’ thinking.
So you can potentially be both joyous and regretful. Melancholy and loving. Tired and compassionate. Angry yet forgiving. You can think of someone as your hero and also see their flaws. Perhaps you can think one way and feel another, without having to decide which of those is more ‘right’. (Or maybe you could even acknowledge that ‘right’ can sometimes also be ‘wrong’).
So how does all of this relate to you?
What kind of polarities might exist in your own life?
Are there any conflicting parts of yourself that you might be able to accept even despite their differences?
Could any of your opinions perhaps use some stretching to allow for concurrent, perhaps seemingly opposite perspectives to give them more depth?
Which parts of ‘black’ and ‘white’ might you be able to lace more closely together?
Who knows where stepping towards these more expansive, more accepting ways of thinking might lead you?
Perhaps the 13th century poet Rumi could foresee that destination when he wrote:
‘Out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.’
I wonder what it might feel like to start walking towards that field…
Photos: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She is the editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy, the author of a private practice blog, and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2010). ‘Black and White Thinking’: How to Balance these Cognitive Extremes. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 18, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapist-within/2010/08/%e2%80%98black-and-white-thinking%e2%80%99-how-to-balance-these-cognitive-extremes/