We’ve all succumbed to black-and-white thinking at some point in our lives. Whether consciously or not, we've seen a situation as good or bad, right or wrong, happy or sad. And in doing so, we’ve eliminated an entire third world of possibilities—the gray area. It’s in the gray area that life actually happens.

We asked Hedy Cyker-Keiderling, PhD, how to move beyond black-and-white thinking and tap into that gray area.

So what is black-and-white thinking?

Black-and-white thinking is also known as dichotomous thinking, and is often referred to as splitting. According to Cyker-Keiderling, “Black-and-white thinking is a thought process in which people think in absolutes: good or bad, success or failure, perfect or imperfect.” It’s a thought pattern people fall into to describe people, things, or actions.

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What are the signs and causes?

Extreme terminology is one exhibit of black-and-white thinking. You may catch yourself or someone else saying words like: always, never, perfect, terrible, good, or bad. Perfectionism and negative self-talk also can be signs. This thinking can stem from a learned habit rooted in trauma.

Is black-and-white thinking harmful?

“Many people demonstrate black-and-white thinking at times or for certain issues, but if it becomes a pattern and persists across many areas of one’s life, it could be part of a more serious condition,” Cyker-Keiderling says. For instance, black-and-white thinking is commonly associated with narcissism, anxiety and depression, borderline personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “If it is your sole way of thinking, it can have grave effects on your relationships, career, or everyday life,” Cyker-Keiderling says.

Again, this is why embracing the gray area is so important. Cyker-Keiderling says, “Communicating with others and building relationships takes seeing the gray. Healthy social relationships and work relationships require recognizing the nuances in life.”

Is black-and-white thinking a symptom of bipolar disorder?

Typically, black-and-white thinking is more often a symptom of borderline personality disorder rather than bipolar disorder. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t always the case, and each situation should be assessed differently by a professional. Every disorder has criteria, and in order to meet that criteria, one symptom is not enough to create a diagnosis.

How can you overcome it?

The most common way to curb black-and-white thinking is therapy, says Cyker-Keiderling. “Seeking counseling or a therapist to help identify the greater problem is essential. People with this type of thought pattern can benefit from learning how to identify when and why it is occurring. This work can be furthered with tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and other techniques to create more positive patterns of thinking.” If there’s a severe mental disorder causing it, then a more involved form of treatment may be required.

Just as we have discussed the necessity of considering the gray area, it’s critical to apply this consideration to black-and-white thinking as a concept itself. This type of thought pattern occurs on a spectrum. Recognizing the wide range of ways that black-and-white thinking can present itself is essential in overcoming it.