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Black-and-White Thinking

An Axis Course On Don’t Believe Everything You Think

The next cognitive distortion we want to look at can be called “black-and-white thinking” (it is also known as “dichotomous thinking” and “all-or-nothing thinking”). This distortion involves categorizing things, situations, and people as either entirely good or entirely bad, when in reality almost everything and everyone is a mix of good and bad. For example, someone who is dissatisfied with their social status at school may think, “There is nothing good about this school,” when maybe that school does have some redeeming qualities, like good teachers or an easy commute. Black-and-white thinking makes it hard for us to see how good qualities can coexist with bad ones.

Similar to overgeneralizing, black-and-white thinking prevents us from being able to find the good in hard situations, because it encourages us to see things as either entirely good, or entirely bad. It also prevents us from being able to address issues that exist in an otherwise good relationship or situation: either someone or something is completely perfect, or otherwise completely worthless—either totally good, or totally evil.

You can easily see how this distortion could lead to chaos in our relationships and in society. Otherwise healthy marriages or romantic relationships might get trashed because they didn’t seem “perfect,” instead of the couple working through their issues. Generally functional organizations and institutions might get treated as if they were irredeemable, because of the idea that if something isn’t entirely good, it’s entirely bad.

Some people believe that Christianity teaches black-and-white thinking, or that seeing things in black-and-white terms always represents a kind of moral clarity. It’s true that in Jesus’ parables he taught about a clear separation between sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, and between eternal life and eternal death. But these stories do not fully capture the depth and dynamism of how God interacts with us.

The Bible teaches that human beings have been made in the image of God, which means we have incredible worth and dignity. It also teaches that the image of God in us has been effaced and partially covered up because of our sin. As such, we are all a mix of good and bad—“glorious ruins,” as Francis Schaeffer once put it.

On yet another level, God doesn’t leave us like that. In Jesus, God pursues us to redeem and restore us so that we can be who He created us to be. In an all-or-nothing, black-and-white religion or worldview, the only option would have been to totally destroy us because we were not perfect—but God sees something good buried underneath our sin, which He wants to redeem.

Just because someone or something has an imperfection doesn’t mean that they’re entirely bad. And on the flipside, just because someone or something has some good qualities doesn’t mean they’re completely perfect. Moving past “black-and-white thinking” means learning to see people and the world as a whole in a more nuanced way.