Cognitive distortions are inaccurate beliefs that make us feel badly about ourselves. Cognitive distortions are often linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and particularly to what is known as polarized thinking, or black and white thinking. People with black and white thinking assume that something is either entirely good or entirely bad. There are no shades of gray.
Examples of Black and White Thinking
A good example of black and white thinking would be to assume that you are the absolute worst driver in the world after someone honks their horn at you. A less extreme and ultimately healthier thought process would suggest that perhaps the person who honked their horn was in a rush or that the person is simply an impatient driver. While an outsider looking in might consider this extreme thought process to be “ridiculous” or even “crazy”, it is truly what a person with black and white thinking believes and experiences on a regular basis.
Black and White Thinking and Avoidance
Many people suffering from OCD and particularly black and white thinking avoid any situation without an absolute certainty that nothing bad is going to happen. If the person does not feel 100% safe, then the situation presents grave danger. Once again, there is no gray area and nothing between complete safety and absolute danger. This type of thinking can easily get in the way of the fulfilling life we all want and deserve.
Living in a World of Gray
The problem with black and white thinking is that we mostly live in a world of gray. Looking back to the example of driving a car, no one can say with absolute certainty that an accident will never happen. We try to be safe on the road, but the situation is simply uncertain.
Black and white thinking is especially problematic for people suffering from OCD, as the disorder thrives on this type of thinking. When OCD and cognitive distortion join forces, it can create a vicious cycle of anxiety, panic attacks and other mental health problems. Treatment can also be a slow and tedious process as a black and white thinker might chalk up every minor setback to failing the treatment process completely. Each minor setback could potentially cause the person to assume the absolute worst – that he or she has failed at therapy and there is no use even trying.
Helping Someone with Cognitive Distortions
The key to overcoming this OCD-related type of thinking is to accept the uncertainty of life. While this is extremely difficult for anyone suffering from black and white thinking, it is ultimately the solution that can place you back into a healthier world of gray.
Simply making someone aware of their black and white thinking could be enough to help a person address and correct their thinking in cognitive behavioral therapy. Changing your way of thinking is not always easy, especially for those suffering from OCD. Still, with help and support we can all learn to make peace with inevitable uncertainty.