Spotting Black or White Thinking & Finding Shades of Grey (DBT)

In DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) class, we often hear about the concept of "Black or White," "All or Nothing," or "Extreme" thinking.

This seems to be a pretty classic symptom among those of us with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder).  In order to support us in becoming more emotionally stable and less extreme in our thoughts and reactions, Dr. Marsha Linehan, founder of DBT, has some suggestions for noticing the red flags of extreme thinking and how to find shades of grey.  I will share some of these ideas as I interpret them and in ways that they have helped me in my own personal experiences.

On the "15 Styles of Distorted Thinking" page in my DBT binder, number 2 on the list is:

"Polarized Thinking: Things are black or white, good or bad. You have to be perfect, or you're a failure. There is no middle ground."

(From Thoughts and Feelings: The Art of Cognitive Stress Intervention by Matthew McKay and Martha Davis, New Harbinger Publications, 1981.)

I can really relate to this. The example that comes to mind is my work life. When I am doing well and receiving praise from my employer, I feel that I am perceived as "perfect" and "good." If I make a single mistake and/or detect the least bit of disappointment from my employer in me or my work (whether real or "imagined,") I flip to the other extreme that I am a failure, useless, and fear that I will be fired. I imagine that I've lost all of his "love" and admiration.  I am no longer worthy in his eyes. As you can imagine, the extreme, quick switch is distressing to experience.

Since investing deeply in my DBT classes, I am able to at least now recognize that I am experiencing polarized thinking. I can then use the skill of "Self-Soothing" by speaking to myself kindly from the Wise Mind. For example, I might say to myself:

"It's not all or nothing. No one is perfect. No one believed I was perfect. Just because I made a mistake or my boss seems disappointed doesn't mean that all is lost and that I am useless. It's not one extreme or the other. I don't have to catastrophize."

Other Red Flags of "Black or White," "All or Nothing," or "Extreme Thinking":
  • Never
  • Always
  • Hate
Whenever I notice myself expressing or thinking one or more of these words, it's a red flag for me that I am in extreme thinking.  


  • Sometimes I catch myself saying to my significant other things like: "You NEVER pay attention to me anymore." More realistically, I could rephrase this emotionally triggered extreme thought and expression as:  "I am really needing you right now. I've noticed that you've been really pre-occupied lately, and I am really needing your support and attention. Please sit down with me and talk."

    (A note about expressing "never" and "always" to another person: I've noticed that this tends to put the other person on the defensive. He or she may be less able to engage with you and understand what you are expressing if you use these words. They may respond with, "Oh, I NEVER support you?!?" or "Oh, I ALWAYS ignore you?!?" followed by a list of examples that prove you are wrong.

    You can avoid this by either being more mindful before you speak so as to avoid communicating extreme language, or by immediately retracting what you said. For example, "I'm sorry - you know what? It's not fair to say that you NEVER pay attention to me. You often do. I'm just really feeling like I need some of your attention now and I said something really extreme. Can we talk?"  This can go a LONG way.)
  • I've noticed that quite often when I feel very bored or distressed, this thought will cross my mind: "I HATE EVERYTHING!!!!"  Since learning these skills in DBT, I can now recognize when this is happening and even have a little laugh. Of course I don't "hate everything." I love chocolate. I love my cats. I like to sing. It's quite extreme to say I hate "everything."  This is where Wise Mind and Self Soothing come into play.

Shades of Grey in Borderline Personality Disorder. Notice
How many different shades/possibilities exist between the extremes
of Black and White. Image Credit.

What are some of YOUR extreme thinking red flags?  How do you cope?

Thanks for reading.
More Soon.

Here is a LINK to the full list of "15 Style of Distorted Thinking."


  1. I do this ALL the time. Hah, I even did it just then! It's really hard to separate what's BPD and what's my personality. I've been told a lot what an "extreme" person I am with opinions and actions.. Is that me or is it the disorder?

    I would also really struggle to turn around and recognise, apologise for and reverse extreme statements on the spot as when I say them they are real to me. I'm impressed that you can as I couldn't see myself doing it!

  2. Hi there, Cloud Rabbit. ☺

    I hope, like me, you find it very interesting as you begin to actually *notice* when you have engaged in black and white/extreme thinking. For many years, I went a long living my life that way, totally unconscious of the pattern and then obviously not understanding how it was impacting my life. It feels liberating to acknowledge and then be able to "change your mind," right?

    You say you can't see yourself doing it...but step back a actually *are*!



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