Thought Mine #3: Black and White Thinking

Each Thought Mine is followed by a definition and a list of examples. Please note that the following examples are representative statements. The same sentence may represent numerous Thought Mines. I list examples mainly to give you a starting point. Often individuals blend two or three “favorite” Thought Mines together into their own type of social misreading.

Thought Mine #3: Black and White Thinking

Also called:

All or nothing thinking, Polarized thinking, Light switch thinking (on/off)


Viewing a person or situation as having only two choices such as: good/bad, positive/negative, smart/dumb, happily married/divorced

Negative self-talk example:

“People are pretty or ugly, I’m not pretty, so I must be ugly.”

Couple example:

She: “You haven’t touched me in a week, are you having an affair?”

He: “You haven’t let me touch you in a week…do you hate me?”

Teen example:

“I’m still a virgin, I’ll never get laid.”

Work/school example:

“I don’t have a job. Who would want to hire me? Only losers don’t have a job.”

“I’m not happy here, I should just quit.”


Black and White Thinking is very common even among happy couples, motivated coworkers, and close friends. In such situations the black and white thinking causes short term distress, which will naturally dissipate over a small amount of time. However, when stress increases the tension in the relationship, black and white thinking leads to limited options (only 2) that dictate how a person feels about the other, and how one acts towards the other.

One couple of 28 years that I worked with became stuck at two choices. The wife put it this way, “Either I do whatever he says, pretending that I have no thoughts, or we get divorced.” When the couple understood that their problem was not an on or off light switch, but a dimmer switch with millions of options, they worked diligently together looking for choices and options which would work best for them.

It is important to note, that for 28 years, black and white thinking had worked well for them. It wasn’t until extreme stresses lead the couple to an all or nothing answer, which time could not dissipate, that they had a real family crisis.

As Beck [Beck, Aaron T. Love is Never Enough. HarperPerennial, 1988] explains:

Under stress, people’s thinking about complex problems slide into familiar, pre-formed grooves. The “solutions” represented by these grooves are simplistic: give in or get out; fight or flight, shout or shut up.


Black and white thinking makes thinking all positive or all negative.

all bad –– all good

all happy –– all sad

all positive –– all negative


Black and white with shades of gray:

 Figure 2: Spectrum of black and white thinking


Calm is balanced and relaxed— conducive to thought.


A teenager asked me, “So, you’re saying I should never be angry?” To this I pointed out that the problem was with the word be. One is not an angry, or a happy or a sad. These words are feelings not a state of being. You are a person who presently feels angry. That is different than being an angry person.  Anger is a useful emotion, but I advise feeling calm while acting angry. Anger leads to escalation, while calm leads to self-control.

When feeling sad, strive for calm. Calm leads to thought and understanding.

When feeling bad, strive for calm. Calm leads to insight and self-respect.

Often individuals believe that they should be, or even that they have the right, to feel happy all the time. This is a time bomb. A healthy life is spent feeling calm, feeling in balance.

When people feel sad most say to themselves, “I want to feel happy” or “I deserve to feel happy.” However, a healthy and emotionally honest question would be, “What do I need to do to get back to feeling calm?” This question puts you back in control of you. The thought, “What do I need to do?” puts the responsibility for how you act squarely on your shoulders. Who else should be responsible for how you act?

More: Understanding Thought Mines

Thought Mines are social misreadings that get in the way of communicating clearly. They are thought stumbling blocks that allow us to misread, and often misjudge, the intention of others. By misreading others intentions, we can often get sidetracked from getting our needs met.


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