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Alcohol and Mental Health

Black and White Thinking: What It Is and How To Overcome It

July 12, 2023
10 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 12, 2023
10 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 12, 2023
10 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 12, 2023
10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 12, 2023
10 min read

Do you often get caught up in all-or-nothing mode? For example, you might meet your new next-door neighbors and think they’re a delight, only to label them as the enemies who are trying to drive you out of your house the minute they play music that’s a bit too loud? If so, you might be trapped in one of the most common cognitive distortions: black and white thinking.

When Thoughts Lose Color

The concept of black and white thinking — also known as “dichotomous” or “all-or-nothing” thinking — stems from the psychological domain of cognitive distortions. It's like your brain's version of an old movie: black and white, with none of the vibrant colors of real life. And in black and white thinking, we’re even lacking all the shades of gray. Someone’s either a neat freak or a slob, a superhero or a villain, a miser or a spendthrift. We miss all of life’s nuances, subtleties, and complexities, leading to a less-accurate understanding of the world.

The Monochromatic Brain

Black and white thinking is not just a quirk of the mind — there's a genuine neurological reason behind it. Our brain is all about streamlining decision-making processes. It prefers quick and easy over slow and nuanced, because less effort means more energy saved for other crucial tasks (such as keeping us alive).

Because of its love for efficiency, the brain sometimes likes to pull a fast one, simplifying complicated issues into binaries. It's not because it’s lazy, it's just trying to make life easier for us. But the truth is, life isn't black or white — it's brimming with all kinds of colorful nuances and possibilities.

What’s the Problem?

This kind of thinking isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it can be useful in certain situations, like when we need to make rapid decisions during a crisis. The trouble starts when this becomes our go-to strategy, leading to oversimplified views of the world, which can hinder our personal growth and happiness.

This cognitive shortcut can lead to a number of problems:

  • It simplifies complexities. Life isn't an easy fill-in-the-blanks task, it's more of a crossword puzzle with twists and turns. Black and white thinking simplifies the richness of human experiences into mere “good or bad,” “success or failure,” “right or wrong.” This can prevent us from fully understanding and appreciating the complexities of life and people around us.
  • It encourages polarization. This type of thinking fosters an “us versus them” mentality. Whether it's in relationships, workplaces, or politics, seeing things in black and white can widen gaps, spur conflicts, and hamper constructive discussions. It prevents us from finding middle ground and working towards mutually beneficial solutions.
  • It fosters perfectionism. When we’re stuck in a black and white mindset, anything less than perfection can seem like failure. This can lead to immense pressure, stress, and even burnout. It can make us overly critical of ourselves and others, hindering growth and development.
  • It may promote unhealthy behaviors. Black and white thinking can create a cycle of self-defeating patterns, making it difficult to create changes in our lives.
  • It hinders emotional well-being. An all-or-nothing mindset can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. For example, if you believe that you're either happy or sad, with no in-between, you might overlook the more subtle emotions that can provide valuable insight into your well-being.

The Drinking Dichotomy

When you're trying to cut back on alcohol, this all-or-nothing mindset can be particularly sneaky. Have you ever tried to limit your drinking, had one too many at a party, and thought, "Well, I've blown it now. Might as well go all in"? That's black and white thinking at work!

This mindset convinces us that if we can't do it perfectly, we shouldn't even bother trying. It doesn't acknowledge that most big changes are about progress, not perfection. Every effort we make to cut back on alcohol is valuable — even if it's not flawless.

Creating a Colorful Mind

Enough about the problems — let's talk about solutions! Here are some ways to step away from black and white thinking and embrace all the shades of life.

  • Observe and acknowledge. Notice when you're slipping into the black and white mindset. Acknowledge it, but don't invite it in.
  • Pause and breathe. Before you leap into a decision, pause for a moment. Give your brain time to consider all the possibilities.
  • Question the extremes. Ask yourself if things really are as black and white as they seem. Maybe there’s a way to reframe the situation.
  • Search for the spectrum. Actively look for the gray areas in your everyday life and spot nuances in your thoughts. Is it “failure” or a slip? “Complete disaster” or a temporary hurdle?
  • Practice moderation. Learn to juggle between opposites. For example, some days you might enjoy a neat living room, but other days the mess might seem comforting — this doesn’t mean you’re a slob.
  • Talk it out. Discuss your thoughts with others. The colors of life often shine through when multiple perspectives are voiced out loud.
  • Be patient with yourself. Changing thought patterns is a gradual process. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a balanced mindset.

And when it comes to alcohol in particular, try these tips:

  • Small steps count. Cutting back doesn't mean going from 100 to 0 in a day. Small reductions in your intake also count, and they often lead to more sustainable changes.
  • Forgive slip-ups. If you happen to drink more than you intended to, don't beat yourself up. Accept that you're human, learn from the experience, and continue your journey to cut back.
  • Reward progress. Celebrate small victories. Did you choose to skip a drink when you usually would have had one? Awesome! These little wins help in reshaping your relationship with alcohol.
  • Seek support. Don't hesitate to seek help from friends, family, or professional groups. It's okay to ask for a helping hand.

Remember, switching off the monochrome TV of black and white thinking and embracing the HD colors of nuanced thinking can make the journey of cutting back on alcohol — and life in general — easier and more enjoyable. Cheers to that!

Find the Colors in Life With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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