Black and White Thinking


Black and white, all or nothing or dichotomous thinking is a pattern of thinking that develops in early childhood.

It develops in children who have come from difficult backgrounds where there has been trauma or bullying, or where there has been a parent with a mental illness, a personality disorder or their own unprocessed trauma and in children with narcissistic parents.

We are in black and white patterns of thinking when we are thinking in terms of:




ought to


disaster, catastrophe




An Unhealthy Sense of Self

The reason these patterns of thinking evolve is because of the way the psyche develops. We hold ‘good’ images of ourselves and others and ‘bad’ images of ourselves and others in different parts of the mind. During the early years of a child’s development, if a child is not nurtured, supported and helped to grow a healthy ego and sense of self then they will not be able to hold together these complex ideas in their minds.

The child therefore cannot develop a grey nuanced way of thinking and so they can only be in one mode of thinking at a time. They do not learn to relate to themselves and others as whole people composed of a mixture of good and bad elements.

For example, if they are angry with someone it can be impossible to hold in mind that they still love or like that person. This means they can be idealising and devaluing others and themselves.

Unrealistic Ways of Thinking

What this means is that a person is not going to have realistic ways of thinking.

When we are in the darker mode of thinking we are going to expect the worst to happen, we are going to catastrophise, imagine worse case scenarios, expect to get fired, our partner to leave us or to never be successful. While these ways of thinking are helpful when we are living in traumatic conditions in the midst of a narcissistic family, they are not helpful when applied to life around more stable people and in that situation, black and white ways of thinking are often a hindrance.

Idealising others and devaluing ourselves means that we will stay in relationships which are unhealthy for us. We may believe that we deserve to be treated badly by our partner.

We may have extreme thoughts about ourselves like ‘I am no good’ ‘I will never amount to anything’ ‘I will never be happy or successful, no one will ever love me’ ‘Life will always be bad.’

Healthier Patterns of Thinking

Black and white ways of thinking will mean that we are often worried and stressed and it can have a very negative effect on the way we feel. It often affects our relationships with others in a detrimental way.

We can retrain our minds to think in a grey, nuanced way using words like sometimes instead of always and never.

We can use mindfulness to notice our thoughts, develop our self awareness and correct ourselves when we notice black and white thinking patterns in ourselves so that we can cultivate a more realistic stance.

The idea of splitting and parts can also be found in the Structural Dissociation Model and Internal Family Systems Theory.

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Sarah Graham

I am a Counsellor, based in Bournemouth in the UK, with specialist knowledge of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I am trained in treating Complex Trauma. I work online and am insured to work in most places in the world.

Link to my Counselling Website Here