Who is a hundred percent good, or a hundred percent bad? Black-and-White thinking is not only unrealistic, it's bad for your mood!
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Dichotomous thinking is basically thinking in “black-and-white” terms. A few examples would be “young-old”, “tall-short” and “good-bad”. However, very few phenomena in the world are “black-and-white”. I am 37, and compared to a 21 year old, I could be “old” but compared to a 70 year old, I could be “young”. I am five feet one, and is some parts of the world, I’d be considered a tall woman, but here in Australia I am quite short.
To understand why dichotomous thinking should be avoided, it is important to realise that our thoughts give way to feelings. In turn, our feelings give rise to our behaviours.
For example, to use the “good-bad” example. If I am a good friend, I may praise myself and see myself as a “good person”, feel great and act in positive ways. However, I may then think “yes but I’m terribly lazy – I haven’t done any housework in a week”, so the thought “I’m lazy” causes me to feel bad. I then behave in a depressed manner.
This sets up the potential for mood swings, also. To avoid such black-and-white thinking, we need to be careful for the terms we use. For example, instead of using the term “lazy”, I could say “yes I’m a good friend, but, I could put a bit more effort into the housework. Thus, by avoiding extreme terminology, I can avoid plunging into low self-esteem and a sad mood.
As the above example also illustrates, we need to be specific about the behaviour we are attaching the terminology to. For example, “I need to put more effort into my housework”, is better than “I need to make more effort”. You may be disregarding things you already put a lot of effort into, such as work, or study or being a caring mum.
Avoiding black-and-white thinking also helps us view other people in more realistic terms, too. We all say things from time-to-time like “You are always late.” Now, 99 times out of 100, the person in question will not always be late, but by using this language, we give rise to feelings of greater annoyance, even anger. The person who you are directing the admonition to may feel upset too because the statement is inaccurate. Instead you can say “you are sometimes late, and this is upsetting to me. I recognise you are also often on time, but I was wondering if you could make a bit more effort to be on time more frequently.”
If you even change one black-and-white statement per day, and do this over the period of a year, according to psychologist Aaron Beck, depression can be significantly reduced. Who doesn’t want that?!