The Grey Area

My own thoughts tend to be my own worst enemy. They have been the source of years of anxiety and depression. The vast majority of them is totally irrational, and has little to no truth behind them. I could drive myself off the deep end easily if I allowed myself to do so.

For some of you who have felt similarly, we call these little buggers “cognitive distortions.” “Cognitive” meaning “pertaining to your thought processes” and “distortions” pertain to “unclear and/or irrational.” Therefore, these are simply unclear or irrational thought processes that affect our perception of reality (, 2015).

One of the most common and trouble of cognitive distortions is cognitive rigidity. Many of you are more likely to be familiar with the saying “black-and-white thinking.” This is when an individual thinks in concrete terms without consideration of alternative explanations, resolutions, or reasons. This dualistic thinking causes people to ignore potentially important information related to a situation.

It is often associated with negative feelings (i.e. anger, anxiety, and depression) that cause “cognitive narrowing.” This phenomenon occurs when we focus on lose focus of the information, options, and explanations in front of us and hone in on specifics (Harmon-Jones, Price, & Gable, 2012). For comparison, you might have seen a horse and carriage being pulled down the street or a horse ride at a local fair. These horses wear blinders on their eyes that keep them moving forward in a straight direction. This is to keep them from getting distracted and potentially freaking out from external stimuli. This is almost what happens to our brain with cognitive narrowing. We focus only on what is directly in front of us.

I have wanted to share a technique that you could use to invite in black-and-white thinking and also combat it at the same time. It is one that I developed myself and can take less than ten seconds to utilize once you have practiced it enough.

  • Catch yourself engaging in the cognitive distortion of “black-and-white thinking.” With anything, you have to identify the problem or at least when it is occurring in order to resolve it. Focus on the content of the distortions. For example, this might include the specific situation or issue at hand.
  • You ask yourself the first of three questions in a specific order. What is the ideal resolution to this situation? There is a reason I say to start off with this question. Starting off positive makes the impact of the next question a bit softer and easier to manage. It is also the beginning of inviting in the “black-and-white thinking.” This is the first end of the spectrum.
  • Next, ask yourself this. What is the absolute worst that could happen in this situation? We have already addressed the positive, and now we look at the negative. Think about the realistically what could happen to make this situation go south into a downward spiral. You are also addressing the other end of this spectrum. By doing so, you have now fed into the dualistic thinking.
  • Now, we fight back. Ask yourself this. What is realistically going to happen? This forces you to take a step back and ground yourself. It makes you look at the evidence in front of you and take into consideration all aspects of this situation. You are now looking at the grey area between the black and white. You have now broadened your cognition and fought back against cognitive narrowing. Now, you might not like what the reality is offering, but it makes it easier to manage it as it occurs.

Now, this is a technique that takes practice and might take you a few moments at first to work through. Also, the complexity of a situation could affect its use as well. With practice though, you could use this technique to address daily stressors in the matter of seconds. Give it a shot and let me know how it works.

– The Caring Counselor (2015, April 7). 20 Cognitive Distortions and How They Affect Your Life. Retrieved from

Harmon-Jones, E., Price, T., & Gable, P. (2012). The Influence of Affective States on Cognitive Broadening⁄Narrowing: Considering the Importance of Motivational Intensity. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 314-327.

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