Black and white thinking

Many clients have walked into my counselling room with elements of binary thinking. What do we mean by binary? Many of us will call it ‘all-or-nothing’, ‘black and white’, or ‘good or bad’ thinking. This presents option A or option B on two sides of a scale without any grey areas or options in between being considered. Whilst this may be extremely common in neurodiverse thinking, it continues to impact several different clients who walk through my door.



So, what is the issue with the binary mindset? For a child, they may be taught that if they talk in class and get ‘told off’ they are automatically a ‘bad’ child. This is opposed to those children who may believe they may have been ‘a bit annoying’ to the teacher, but ultimately, they remain a ‘good’ child. You can perhaps begin to see the negative spiral on self-esteem and options later in life this type of thinking presents.

Some adults may present binary thinking in a positive light, and you may believe this mindset is certainly useful. However, the mindset allows us to become fixed in denying other feelings and invalidating them as though they are wrong. For example, by always looking for the positive in someone or something, we fight to invalidate our other feelings which can come out in different ways (sadness into tension headaches etc). This physical reaction of the body has been famously explored in Van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score.

We cannot healthily ignore or suppress our true feelings but working with them all remains our healthiest option. However, stating and feeling a situation is ‘sad’ does not have to determine that you will remain sad forever (a fear many have explored deeper) or that other feelings surrounding other parts of the same day cannot exist.

One way of seeing an option as good or bad means it can also reinforce our thought patterns without question, however, these may be negative and biased from childhood. Sometimes we can distance ourselves from others because they may disagree with our line of thinking on a topic. A concerning issue that crops up in abuse, is people can believe what they are told by a partner, so they don’t see any other options, if they disagree with doing something and consider other options available to them, they are ‘difficult’ because that’s what they have been conditioned to believe.

Exploring how this comes out in sessions

A client may hate their job, so they see quitting and living on no money as the only other option. They sit there depressed and unhappy resigned to a job they hate as bankruptcy is not an option for them.

Together, we begin to explore what other options may be available – sometimes this may be the client realising there is one issue with their current job they need to resolve but facing that has led them to decide they hate it completely. Perhaps a change of hours or days is the solution, but the real issue of facing the fear of raising the request leads them to protective decisions that quitting the job is the only solution to their predicament. By facing the fear of asking for something (perhaps deeply ingrained from childhood that they shouldn’t have their wants and needs met) they learn to uncover more solutions and options to their position.

Another presentation in counselling could be that a client is deeply grappling with feelings of rejection because someone close to them didn’t phone them when promised. Here the thinking in binary terms would be that the person clearly didn’t like them. So, if they had phoned, they did like them. However, by exploring the other possible options we could find that, perhaps the person genuinely forgot (this person had a very busy career and family too), perhaps the technology had failed, or perhaps they lost the number they noted down. Gently then, exploring where the feelings of rejection stemmed from for automatically assuming the answer must be due to how this person felt about them would be possible.

As noted, sometimes binary thinking reinforces what we have been told in childhood. Perhaps the client wasn’t made to feel worthy of time by their parents, then this lack of phone call reinforced what they believe and therefore it’s hard to see outside of this. Sometimes, this binary thinking is part of the client's neurodiverse world, and whilst this is difficult to change, exploring awareness and finding trusting sources to explore decisions outside of the counselling room lessens the sometimes detrimental impacts.

What can we do?

In counselling, I have gently challenged where black and white options present – physically showing my arm as a seesaw to highlight how we are considering two options/outcomes but, on the seesaw, both ends are connected – so then we can start to explore the in-between options.

It’s also useful to consider a ‘true list’, so if something seems negative, what else is true? This again gets the brain thinking about all the in-between options and alternatives. It may well be that the outcome of losing one’s job is terrible, but does that make them terrible or their whole life? A true list may then include that they still have a loving family, they still love their hobby, etc. This is different than a focus on the positives, it's finding a balance between the positives and negatives surrounding their lives in that snapshot moment.

These gentle challenges and exploration in the safety of the counselling room can help you gain more and more self-awareness, so you walk away in between sessions recognising when your mindset may be binary and increasing the ability to challenge yourself with a ‘true list’ or check out with friends/family or your counsellor in your next session and explore other options or ways of looking at things that may not be as clear cut as we once thought. The safety of the counselling room as a non-judgemental space is truly wonderful to remain curious about yourself, your thinking and the impact on your own body.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Southampton SO16 & Chandlers Ford SO53
Written by Zaenia Rogers
Southampton SO16 & Chandlers Ford SO53

I am an Integrative Counsellor, not specialising just in ADHD, but personal knowledge of living alongside it in my household has meant I've acquired a lot of experience and knowledge and look to pass this on where possible. I have also worked extensively with clients with low self esteem, anxiety and depression.

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