Black and White Thinking is Poisonous

I’ve certainly been guilty of black and white thinking in the past, but it is only in recent years that I’ve discovered how prevalent this narrow-mindedness is in the world. It seems to be the norm rather than the exception. I suspect that it has always been this way, but the popularity of the internet really shows that this limited way of viewing the world can be poisonous. It is this that creates the mentality of ‘us versus them’ and this inability to see that most of life is just one huge gray area can easily drive people into mental illness.

Our ignorance

The Nature of Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking is a type of fallacious reasoning whereby people allow themselves to become a victim of a false dilemma. It means that we limit ourselves to just two options in life – good or bad, right or wrong, and all or nothing. In our relationships with other people, it means that they are either with us or against us. Black and white thinking is usually a sign that we are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and that we need to have everything fit into an easy to manage box. The problem is that life is chock-full of uncertainty and most things we will be faced with fall into a gray area. This means that if we insist on pushing everything into our comfy black and white boxes, we will be regularly banging our heads against reality – and likely pissing lots of people off as well.

Black and White Thinking and Depression

It is now more or less accepted that there is a link between black and white thinking and depression. I find this easy to believe, and I can certainly say from my own experience with depression that my all or nothing approach to things was a major factor. The problem with this narrow view of life is that it limits our options to such an extent that we can no longer function. We want our life to be wonderful all the time, and our failure to accomplish this can lead to despair – if only we could see that there is a middle ground where we can be content without perfection.

Black and White Thinking and Conflict

Most conflict in the world occurs as a result of black and white thinking. You only have to visit any of the online forums to see this in action. In fact, these forums wouldn’t be popular at all if it wasn’t for the conflict generated by only viewing the world in two flavours. Seeing life as one huge gray area makes it harder to fall into the ‘us and them’ attitude and without the conflict these debates with lack entertainment value. The reality is that you get rewarded for being a black and white thinker in the modern world – for example, if I was to write a blog post titled ‘Religion is Pure Evil’, it would probably get a lot more hits than a post titled ‘Religion is a Mixed Bag’.

Cure for Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking is poisonous (even if saying this may make me sound like a bit of a black and white thinker). Thinking this way means that we are always going to be at odds with reality, and this is almost certain to lead to suffering. The cure is to become more comfortable with the uncertainties in life – to understand at a fundamental level that at best our beliefs are just a vague description of reality. It also means becoming comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know’ a lot more frequently and knowing that there is no shame in not knowing.

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2 thoughts on “Black and White Thinking is Poisonous

  1. I didn’t comment on this post when you first wrote it, but I think it is very much connected with your recent post on getting stuck or fixed on the next big goal or dream and not being able to live in the present, as well as to enjoy the fruits of the goals that have already been accomplished. Black and white thinking produces the absolutes of grand success very dismal failure. As Tan wrote, when referring to feeling that anything less than “rock star” status was disappointing to him, I think that black and white thinking is often a huge part of this mind-set. All or nothing. Big or so miniscule as to not even been seen or acknowledged. This is another really important mindset that when synthesized with some of your other writings can begin to clearly paint the picture of the road to misery and psychological and emotional hell!!!! And suffering, of course. Good stuff. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for pointing out this link Mary – you are absolutely right of course. The sad thing is that achieving my dreams is usually a bit of let-down, and the real joys in life come from unexpected gifts from the universe. The problem is that black and white thinking can mean I miss this real joy because I’m too focused on achieving the dreams that aren’t going to make me happy anyway. The ‘my way or the highway’ attitude to life just doesn’t work because I don’t know what is good for me – it is just working my ass off to be miserable 🙂

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