This Thinking Style Might be Hurting You

There are some unhelpful thinking styles we can fall into as perfectionists or as those who lean towards perfectionism. I’ll shine the light on just one of these in this post – black and white thinking. Although not reserved for perfectionists, this style of thinking can be detrimental.

I hope this blog will help you become aware of and identify if black and white thinking is negatively impacting your life. My own experience is that this style of thinking is often subconscious. I can only encourage you to become a detective in your own life and see if you can find it in yourself. It may be impacting you more than you think.

What is black and white thinking?

The Centre for Clinical Interventions describes it this way. “This thinking style involves seeing only one extreme or the other. You are right or wrong, good or bad, and so on. There are no in-betweens or shades of grey. e.g., If I make one mistake, I am a complete failure; If I don’t scrub my kitchen with bleach after every meal, then it’s not clean.” These are extreme examples. You might find this way of thinking showing up in a more subtle but still unhelpful way.

For perfectionists, this is, in part, about setting up an unrealistic standard on the one end of the spectrum. E.g. My work is only good if it is flawless. I am only eating healthy if I never eat (add your word of choice – sugar, carbs, fat, meat.) The house is clean only if I clean it from top to bottom on the same day. I’m living my faith only if I never doubt. I can only feel good about my day if I get everything done on my to-do list.

Do you find yourself thinking about extreme options? E.g. I’m either moving forward, or I’m falling behind. I’m a victim or a conqueror. I’m living in fear or love. I succeeded, or I failed.

Would I benefit from working on this?

If you know that you often give yourself either/or options or think in extremes, check the impact when you don’t achieve your goal. What is the effect on your stress level? What are the physical symptoms you experience when you don’t meet your standard? How do you see yourself when you land on the bottom end of the spectrum? What are the thoughts you experience? What is the effect on your relationships?

Your answer to these questions will help point you to whether this is an area in which you would benefit from working. If black and white thinking is having a negative impact on your life, you can do things to work towards change.

What to do if I want to change my black and white thinking habit

The first step is to create awareness around what areas this unhelpful thinking style shows up for you. It could be that you don’t think this way in all areas of life, just some. Note the places you want to improve.

Clinical Psychologist Jeremy Shapiro talks about the Goldilocks principle where something is either too hot or cold or too hard or soft. He talks about looking for the middle way, the just right, as something that falls between those two extremes of black-and-white thinking.

Try putting your black and white choice on a continuum, with one option being on the “white end” of the scale and the other on the “black end.” (If you’re more of a numbers person, you could do a scale of 1-10) For example, if one end of your graph is living from a place of fear and the other end is about living from a place of love, what might the graph’s midpoint be? What are the shades of grey between those two options?  Perhaps a grey shade between fear and love might be living courageously – acknowledging fear and moving towards love. Try to define specific, concrete actions to help you know that you are moving towards a ten on the scale. This method is about generating options. It’s about progress, not perfection.

“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.
You can climb it and cross to the other side.
You can go around it.
You can dig under it.
You can fly over it.
You can blow it up.
You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there.
You can turn around and go back the way you came.
Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.”

Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

This week’s photos

I’m an amateur photographer. I chose this week’s photo’s to celebrate the shades of grey (or gold).


Here’s why I focus on personal growth as a coach.

Sue Das, CPCC, ACC, B Soc Sc (SW)

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