Polarized Thinking or Black and White Thinking Cognitive Distortion #2


My daughter is the queen of cognitive distortion #2, Polarized Thinking. Her brother can’t play RIGHT NOW, so he’s NEVER going to play again. Obviously.

In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

We tend to get into polarized thinking when things aren’t going our way. Things aren’t “right” or “perfect” at this moment, so they never will be again.

Polarized thinking is when we’re so focused on things being just right that if they aren’t 100% perfect, it doesn’t count.

The key to breaking the cycle of polarized thinking is to say, “things aren’t right in this moment, but they will be again sometime.” Of, “so what if everything isn’t perfect, it’s pretty good overall. I’ll take the faults with the good.” If you can give yourself grace and not put a limit on when certain things need to happen, you’ll get out of polarized thinking even faster.

Here’s a story to demonstrate the point.

Linda was tired of dealing with the insurance company.

A hail storm had come through their neighborhood and damaged their roof, so they were having a new one put on. Unfortunately, the timeline of the adjuster, the insurance company, and the roofers was a snail’s pace. There were so many roofs that needed help, that everyone had to be patient.

Finally, after 3 months of waiting, Linda heard that the new roof was set to be installed next week. She threw up her hands in frustration! Finally! But she didn’t even care now. The wait had been so long she didn’t want the new roof. Didn’t want the new roof. It wasn’t fast enough or on her timeline, so in her mind, it didn’t count.

A whole new roof for a few months of patience wasn’t worth her time? After 5 years it seemed silly to Linda that she had been so impatient. But at the time, as the weeks dragged on, Linda kept falling more and more into polarized thinking. In the end, she got the new roof and everything in her life went back to normal. But she sure lost a lot of sleep in the meantime. In this instance, a little more grace for the whole situation and Linda would have a new roof and peace of mind.

Breaking a cycle of polarized thinking is hard work.

It takes awareness and vigilance. First, one must realize what is happening. Second, one must choose different thought patterns. We are what we think. We want to do our best work, yes, but we also want to finish. Choose grace in the frustrating moments. Chose good enough when perfectionism threatens to take over. Do your best and move on. I think Seth Godin threads this needle:

You ship. You ship your best work, when it’s ready. Not after it’s ready, not when it’s too late to make a difference, and yes, of course, not when it’s sloppy or unformed.

I included my black and white piece, All Seeing Eye as the artwork for this post. Obviously, black and white, lol 😉 Also, it represents your inner eye, or judgment to see when you’re getting into polarized thinking and pull yourself out.

All Seeing Eye Black and White Drawing
All Seeing Eye


Check out more art here!

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