Find your own 50 shades of grey: how to stop thinking in black and white and cut yourself some slack

Are you a black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinker?

Black and white thinkers think in absolutes. Anything that’s not good, is bad. If it’s not perfect, it’s a disaster.


Here’s some examples of typical black and white thinking:

  • She looks perfect. Look at me, I’m fat and ugly.
  • I’ve been good with my eating all week, but because I had a slither of cake at work, I’m bad.
  • If I go to the gym four times a week I’m good. If I miss a session, I’m bad.
  • I thought that report was perfect, but my boss asked me to make a few changes. I can’t do anything right. My boss hates me.

Remind you of anyone you know?

When you’re a black and white thinker, you send yourself relentlessly into a space where if you don’t succeed, you fail. You judge yourself (and often others) on impossibly high standards.

When you set the bar so high, you set yourself up for failure. But failure isn’t acceptable, so you beat yourself up with criticism. And either give up wallowing in misery, or pushing yourself harder to succeed.

It’s a vicious cycle of unrealistic expectations, massive effort to get there, failure, and (my personal favourite) self-criticism.

On the surface, it may look like criticising yourself, pushing yourself extra hard helps you achieve your goals. But the life of a black and white thinker can be pretty dark.

Black and white thinkers are constantly stressed and on edge. They swing from good to bad at the drop of a hat, cycling through guilt and shame along the way.


In fact biologically, this cycle keeps black and white thinkers running at a higher level of anxiety than other people.

That’s because thinking in black and white triggers the flight or fight response; the biological response that’s meant to be triggered when we sense danger – to help us stay and fight, or run to safety.

The concerning thing about triggering this response on a regular basis means black and white thinkers stay at a higher level of physical arousal. And that takes extra energy.

When you’re in a flight or fight state, your system pumps your body with adrenaline to give you energy to run away, or to stay and fight.

From an evolutionary perspective, the fight or flight response is a survival technique, intended to be used only in life threatening situations. That’s because our body tires quickly when we’re in this state.

And if we’re overtired, our survival may be threatened.

But black and white thinkers can keep themselves at a slightly higher state of arousal 24/7. Because they only see the black when the chips are down, their body is cued to be constantly on the alert for danger. They’re constantly poised for action.

But fear not – it is possible to learn how to find shades of grey in situations that look black or white. To move from a rigid thinking style, to a more user-friendly, flexible thinking style.

It’s all about playing around with black and white to get some shades of grey in the spectrum.

You can do this by:

  1. Identifying a black situation
  2. Think about what white would look like
  3. Then focus on what a mid grey would look like
  4. There’s lots of shades between mid grey and black – pick one and consider what that situation or thought would be.

Here’s an example:

A black and white thinker when confronted with eating a piece of cake at a birthday celebration will typically tell themselves they can’t have any because cake is bad (black).

But if they don’t eat it they’re good (white).

So what does mid grey look like?

Maybe joining in on the social occasion is important too. Does that bring bad (and black) closer to grey?

Do they need to have the full slice, or can they slide the black into grey by asking for a small slice, or only eating half?

If they eat the cake – does that make them bad? Or does that make them human (and grey)?

Accepting yourself as human, with all the flaws and grey bits that come with being human is the key to moving from rigid black and white thinking, to flexible grey thinking.

And the good news?

Grey thinking settles down that flight or fight response. Life becomes less stressful, and easier.

And remember, there’s at least 50 shades of grey between black and white!

Written By

Kate Swann is a psychologist, life coach, and author of the book Do You Really Want to Lose Weight? In her psychology practice PS Counselling in Melbourne she works with adults and teenagers with depression, anxiety, trauma, and weight issues.


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