Black and White Thinking is Getting in Your Way

Dr. Christine Bradstreet

Being certain isn’t always an ingredient in success.

If you heard galloping, you’d assume it’s a horse, but it’s possible it’s a zebra, right?

I see a pattern in clients. And friends. And family members. And colleagues. It’s when black and white thinking gets in the way of forward progress. Black and white thinking masks itself in the disguise of certainty, and certainty feels good in an uncertain world. Plus, knowing what you want is a key ingredient lauded by self help and success gurus, right?

What can be wrong with being certain you know what you want and how you want to do it?

Black and white thinking blinds you to possibilities. And to be frank, it’s a tactic of the ego that makes you think you’re an expert in an area that may not be your forte.

Once you know for sure how you want something to play out, you filter out all other options. You double down on your way. You dig in your heals. It makes it even harder to reverse course or pull the plug when the plug needs pulling because not only have you invested your time and energy, you’ve invested part of your being.

Black and white thinking is one of the more common cognitive distortions.

What’s a cognitive distortion you ask? A cognitive distortion is a lense or filter you believe to be truth. Then you view, interpret, and act in the world through that filter.

It’s a trick your mind plays on you to make you believe something that’s not true.

Black and white (or polarized) thinking shows up as absolutes.

There’s no room for gray with this cognitive distortion. Things are right or they’re wrong. Things are a success or they’re a failure. A person who makes one mistake is a “bad” person. Messing up in one area means you’re a total failure rather than just inexperienced in that area.

Here are a few examples of black and white thinking that have held back my clients.

Before I go any further, understand I’m not only talking about career success here. I’m talking also about relationships, health, happiness, and living an authentic life.

“A good mother stays home with her kids.”
“People with desk jobs don’t make a difference in the world.”
“My husband/wife would never go for that.”
“Rules are stupid.”
“I can’t exercise because I have a back problem.”
“If I quit at this I’ll be a quitter the rest of my life.”

Take a look at the absolutes in your life.

Which beliefs make you feel defensive or offended when they’re challenged? Which ones do you argue for?

Is your certainty holding you back, or is it moving you forward? Does it make you feel tense or does it make you feel at ease? If thinking about it gets your hackles raised, consider it’s a cognitive bias and it’s not serving you.

Make an empowered choice whether or not you want to continue to hold this belief.

Very little in life is certain.

Death? Taxes? Gravity? Far less is certain than you believe, and learn to be ok with that. On top of that, the things you think you're certain about are no more than your opinions and beliefs that you created on your own. There’s no truth to them.

Desperately clinging to certainty is going to make change and unexpected happenings a lot more stressful for you.

What can you do instead?

Soften the edges. Tell the Universe you’re open to possibilities. Be willing to listen to the small voice within you. Trust. Trust that there could be a better way. Trust that there could be many ways. Trust that you don’t have to know it all.

The world is full of colors. It’s full of possibilities. It’s full of flavors. Experience as many of them as you can.

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Dr. Christine Bradstreet is a renowned transformation specialist, an inspirational author, and a health and wellness expert. Through her teachings, people learn to create more of what they want in their lives - more health and wellness in their bodies, minds, and spirits. When she's not writing, she offers workshops and lectures, and she works individually with clients to promote healing in their lives. Visit her at


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