Another way of describing this thinking trap, in addition to “black-and-white” thinking, is “all or nothing” thinking. It is thinking in extremes, in opposites. When we engage in black-and-white thinking, we see things as either completely good or completely horrible, a celebration or a disaster, a win or a loss.
I like using the phrase “black-and-white thinking” to describe this thinking trap, because that metaphor allows me to go further and realize that most of life is really composed of shades of grey.
Think of a “black-and-white” photographic image. Black-and-white pictures are possible with today’s cameras and photographic software, but these days we seem to think of them more as an art form. They can be beautiful! Look at the one on this page. Look at it closely. How much actual black and how much actual white are in this “black-and-white” image. I’d say little or none! It’s all shades of grey!
That’s what life is like. That’s what people are like. Not one of us is all good or all bad. Yet so often we either idolize or demonize individuals or even groups. Usually we do that when we don’t know individuals well. We haven’t gotten to know them “up close and personal.” Once we get to really know someone, we see the humanity, the grey, and it’s not so easy to idolize or demonize any longer.
Why do we fall into the thinking trap of black-and-white thinking? I’m not a psychologist, but in my experience and from what I have observed, it seems to offer a way to simplify the complex world in which we live. It can take very little time or effort to either write something off as totally bad or wrong or completely undesirable on the one hand, or to fall head over heels for something, on the other hand.
Really thinking carefully can be a tedious process, and for some of us with ADHD it takes too long and becomes painfully boring. It also requires keeping a lot of different and sometimes conflicting thoughts in mind. That can be a challenge for our working memory.
Some folks with ADHD are also challenged in the area of emotional control, and black-and-white thinking definitely lends itself to situations with high emotion, situations in which we don’t take time to pause and reflect before coming to a snap judgment or conclusion.
So, what can we do to avoid falling into this thinking trap?
Step one – Be aware. Notice when you are falling into the black-and-white thinking trap. For some of us it can be such a habit of thought that we don’t know there is an option of thinking any other way. When you notice you’re engaging in black-and-white thinking, that’s huge! You can’t change what you don’t know is happening. It’s a big step forward to be aware of what you are thinking. That involves using the executive skill of metacognition – thinking about what you’re thinking.
Step two – Be compassionate. In the moment when you notice yourself falling into the black-and-white trap, you might choose to take a deep breath and refuse to judge yourself negatively, which in itself would be more black-and-white thinking. Instead, give yourself a break. It would be more compassionate to think something like this: “I’ve been in that habit of thinking for a long time! It’s great that I noticed it. This is the first step to changing that pattern.”
Step three – Step back and consider. When you are using your metacognition, you have taken a step back from the immediate situation. Mentally observe yourself. From that vantage point, pause and take a breath. Look at the whole picture, from more than one angle. Consider your choices. They probably won’t be black or white. Allow yourself to consider other options. See how it feels to step into the grey.
It might feel a little scary or at least unfamiliar at first. That’s OK. New shoes don’t feel good the first time you wear them either. You’ll need to break this new way of thinking in, just like shoes. Maybe they are grey shoes! Walk around in them for a while and they’ll begin to feel like they belong to you.
– Thanks to ADHD Coaches Madeline Cote and Barbara Luther for their list of ADHD Thinking Traps!