OCD and Black and White Thinking

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is often accompanied by some cognitive distortions, which are basically inaccurate beliefs that usually make us feel badly about ourselves. One of the more common cognitive distortions that might occur with OCD  is known as black and white (or polarized) thinking. When my son Dan was dealing with OCD but could still drive, this type of thinking was obvious. If he went 25 mph in a 35 mph zone and the driver behind him blew his horn, Dan was convinced he was the worst driver in the world. Not a good driver who was going too slowly, but the worst driver ever. No gray, just black and white. Sometimes a humorous comment from me would make him see how ridiculous this thinking was, but more often than not, this is what he believed.

When I think of  OCD and black and white thinking, they really do make the perfect pair. One of the driving forces behind OCD is the need to know with absolute certainty that nothing bad is going to happen. What a perfect example of black and white thinking: Either I am 100% sure that I (and/or those I care about) am completely safe, or I am definitely in great danger. No gray, nothing in between.

But as we know, that’s not how the world works. We live in a world of gray. Dan is a really good driver who goes too slowly sometimes. We try to be safe, but accidents happen. Usually these accidents are no big deal, but sometimes they are. Our world is uncertain.

Like plants in a greenhouse, OCD thrives on black and white thinking, and this cognitive distortion can even sabotage the OCD sufferer’s treatment. Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy, by its very nature, is slow and tedious and often fraught with setbacks. A sufferer who thinks in black and white may conclude: “I’m a complete failure at ERP Therapy because I gave in to my compulsions today. What’s the use? I’m never going to get better. I shouldn’t even bother fighting.”

I think, for Dan, just being made aware of  his tendency toward black and white thinking was extremely helpful. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to address cognitive distortions (and to get rid of them) is necessary for the OCD sufferer’s recovery. Indeed, we all need to be able to think in shades of gray, so that we can begin to accept, and live with, uncertainty in our lives.

I’d love to hear from those who have been affected by black and white thinking. How hard was it to change your thinking? Have you changed your thinking? How has this cognitive distortion affected your OCD and treatment?

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35 Responses to OCD and Black and White Thinking

  1. 71 & Sunny says:

    My life was completely covered by black and white thinking. My psychologist would point out, over and over again, in session after session, just how much black and white thinking I live with. It’s really difficult to live with because you end up living in extremes. I’m either a really “good girl” or a really “bad girl.” I’m not just a normal girl who makes mistakes.

    Yes, it did affect my CBT/ERP treatment. Luckily, my doc was really smart and perceptive. She constantly congratulated me for little/partially done exposures. She would focus on what I had completed, and eventually I started to do the same.

    Just the other day I made a stupid mistake while driving. I don’t even remember what it was that I did. Anyway, what I do remember, is that I started to instantly berate myself. “You’re a terrible person. What if you killed someone? blah blah blah.” This time though, I caught myself right away. I realized it was polarized thinking and told myself it was a stupid mistake but it doesn’t change who I am as a person.

    • ocdtalk says:

      Thank you for sharing Sunny, and it’s great to see that therapy helped with your black and white thinking. While your thoughts may still tend that way, you recognize them for what they are, and don’t get caught up in the cognitive distortions. You set a great example for everyone!

  2. Sparky says:

    Ohhh yes…I call it Oscar’s (my pet name for the OCD “persona”) Extremes.

    My hubby doesn’t answer the phone. Therefore he died, or silenced it while he frolicks in bed with another woman. Of course it couldn’t be that he didn’t hear the phone, was out of service, was taking a sip of coffee and had a stack of papers in the other hand…or anything else mundane.

    …thats my worst one, There are so many.

  3. ocdtalk says:

    I fiind your comment interesting, Sparky, because it shows how different cognitive distortions can overlap. I can definitely relate to your catastrophizing about your husband being dead because he doesn’t answer the phone, and it’s also black and white thinking as well. Thanks for sharing! I’m sure so many people can relate.

  4. Alfonisa says:

    I have so much black and white thinking, it’s not even funny. Some of my OCD is about offending a friend of mine. If he doesn’t communicate regularly, I immediately think “oh, I’ve offended him, I’m the worst person ever. He must hate me or else he would have gotten back to me by now.” when in reality he’s just busy, or tired, or sick, or whatever. Hate, hate, hate it.

  5. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks for sharing, Alfonisa….certainly those with black and white thinking are not alone!

  6. Black and White Thinking plagues me – not only with regards to my “common” OCD themes. It really plays into my perfectionism too. Things are all good or all bad. If I upset someone, or do something wrong, I’m a horrible person, or they are going to leave me or fire me or whatever. I’m working on it and trying to be more aware of it.

    • ocdtalk says:

      I’m guessing being aware of this type of thinking can be difficult if it is so ingrained? You really have to “think” about your thinking. Thanks for your comment, POC.

  7. Tina Barbour says:

    I read your post earlier today but wanted time to think about what example of black and white thinking I would share. But there are too many! If I make a mistake, I tend to beat up on myself. It’s not like the mistake is PART of the whole work I did. The mistake is the ONLY part of the work I see. I am more aware of what I’m doing now and try to stop berating myself when I even think I’ve made a mistake. It’s a process, I guess.

    Oddly, though, I can live in the gray area in some areas of my life. I have become much more comfortable than I used to be with living with uncertainty in my spiritual life. It used to be all black and white. I’m good and going to heaven or I’m bad and going to hell. I have a much more holistic view of spiritual matters. I need to spread that around to the rest of my life! 🙂

  8. ocdtalk says:

    That’s interesting, Tina. Did you work on your black and white thinking in your spiritual life or did your “gray” thinking just evolve? . Like you said, you just need to spread it around! Thanks for your insight.

    • I did a lot of spiritual study. And I think I did just evolve as I got older, met more people, learned different view points, etc. My whole view of God changed.

      Hmmmm, perhaps some of those techniques could be useful elsewhere . . ..

  9. Briana says:

    I experience a lot of black and white thinking. I don’t even know where to start. My OCD (more obsessions than compulsions now) center around fear of death – fear of losing my loved one. Fear of my dying and leaving my loved ones behind. My phobia is rabies, botulism, or things getting up my nose, or my loved ones nose (like that amoeba that thrives in warm ponds in the south that have killed people. Google that for more info). Anyway, in each of these “phobias” I have had black and white thinking. To tell me to think in the gray area tells me that there are risks. I want NO risks, and the thought of risks in life is mentally painful for me. 😦

    • ocdtalk says:

      Thanks for the comment, Briana. I’m sorry you are having such a hard time with your OCD right now. I’m wondering if you have a therapist who specializes in treating OCD, to help you through this?

  10. Briana says:

    No, I am not seeing a therapist right now. I went through through CBT about 14/15 years ago. It helped very much, and I still remember most of what I had learned. Right now, it seems my anxiety is so high that I have trouble working through my OCD episodes. I was on Luvox for 10 years, starting at the time I went through CBT. The Luvox seemed to stop working, so I tapered off several years ago. I assumed 10 years was awful long to be on that medication. I am recovering from a difficult surgery with complications, and it seems my OCD has come back with a vengence. Right now I’m considering going back to therapy with or without medication. I have a child graduating high school this week, so I’m waiting until things slow down before seeing my doctor regarding referring me out to a therapist.

  11. ocdtalk says:

    Hi Briana, Sounds like you are dealing with a lot, but know what you need to do. Congratulations on your child’s graduation! I’m sending you lots of wishes for better days ahead.

  12. Briana says:

    Thank you so much! 🙂

  13. jasonmarlatt says:

    First off this is an excellent point I have never thought of but now I see it when I talk or do anything. I feel that when I do something wrong and criticize myself that I had no one to tell me the opposite, especially in school were I was never the ideal student and any thing I did bad in I was ridiculed. The school system really is not a welcoming environment for people with our type of thinking.

  14. ocdtalk says:

    Thank you for commenting, Jason. I totally agree with you (so much so that my son homeschooled 🙂 ). In school, you’re usually right or wrong, good or bad. There’s not a lot of room for in-between.

  15. Andrea says:

    wow, I had no idea this was a part of OCD. I always just thought it was who I am & that was that. I definitely do this a lot. It is awful but now that I know (thanks to you) this is something I definitely want to work on in therapy 🙂

    • ocdtalk says:

      Thanks for the comment, Andrea. OCD is so complex, isn’t it?; certainly so much more than just obsessions and compulsions. I’m glad you can address this issue in therapy now.

  16. JFoXY says:

    Thank you so much 🙂 This is a great article! Being aware of my thinking has helped me change it for the better 🙂

  17. ocdtalk says:

    Thanks for commenting. I’m so glad you found the article helpful!

  18. Jim says:

    WOW…..I’m in a relationship where I am acting so Black and White that I should have my photo under this definition. Lucky for me my girlfriend and I had a fight wherein I said, “Gray is not a choice, you should leave gray alone and think logically”.. She spent that night looking up and reading about Black and White personality disorder traits…guess who fit the description to a T. I feel so much love for her but then a normal call from my brother puts me in a strange aloof place where I suffer for reasons unknown, I feel hurt and unloved by everyone. I then become cold and unresponsive to her or any of her sexual advances. I really don’t know why I just know that I feel she is just too needy and I “disappear” from her. It can be anything that triggers this aloofness. Then I go back to loving her and feeling she is the most beautiful woman in the world. We have come to the decision that I my be suffering from some disorder like this and we are splitting up. I am planning on getting therapy. Seems like I fit in to this type of behavior???

    • Hi Jim, I’m not a therapist, but I think you are on the right track seeking help so you can figure out what’s going on and get started on feeling better. Good luck. I wish you all the best!

  19. Belle says:

    This is a question I have over a concern of mine that I have struggled with for a long time and have been unable to resolve: An entrenched black and white thought pattern of needing to keep and maintain an entirely separate “clean” and “dirty” area in my apartment. For example, in the morning before I’ve gone out in the world I confine myself to the “clean area” only sitting in my “clean” chair with designated clean books and clean desk and laptop; when I come home from the outside world I confine myself to the “dirty” area only, with a designated “dirty” chair, dirty table and papers, dirty pens, ect. It’s a small apartment so I’m always on guard to avoid touching certain things at certain times depending on if I am clean or dirty. After I’ve showered in the evening I go back to my “clean” areas only and only then, to my clean bed, ect. My kitchen and bathroom are strictly clean areas too. It is a hassle to maintain and the downsides are obvious yet I am stuck in this pattern and have been with every place I’ve lived – even with room-mates. It takes alot of sneaky behavior done in secret to avoid being caught cleaning. It has always had a major negative effect on my social life and on my self-esteem – yet I persist with so little to show except for a strange relief in feeling safe and secure but guilty in being so cowardly and anti-social. (asking people over is very stressful).
    If anyone with a similar challenge and especially a positive breakthrough has any wisdom to share with me, I’d be most grateful.
    PS) yes I’ve had many “goes” at therapy and meds with little change. I know OCD is chronic but at the same time I know I could feel more joy in my life if I could somehow, someway (in all the little ways) whittle this major obstacle down and away by integrating these two polar opposites: clean and dirty -well, it would be a major breakthrough for me and the beginning of something positive.

    • Hi Belle, Thank you so much for sharing your struggles and I have certainly read and heard of others with OCD who have “clean” and “dirty” spaces, so you are not alone. You acknowledge how debilitating this can be, so I do hope you try therapy again. It is so important to find a competent therapist who specializes in treating OCD and uses exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. If you can commit to this therapy, I know it would make a huge, positive difference in your life. Wishing you all the best and I hope to hear from you again.

  20. mandy says:

    I suffer from servere/extreme PTSD I always go toward the same color choices( Ido wear black white and gray a lot I do do sneak in few other colors but more as jewelry accents)(OCD NIT PICKY)

  21. Sami says:

    Great to know I’m not alone. I have quite a bit of black and white thinking and I think that without it my ocd wouldn’t really hold any base to continue. It’s something I am working on in therapy so I hope all goes well 🙂 thanks for the article!

    • You’re welcome, Sami, and thanks for sharing. I think recognizing your black and white thinking is a huge plus, and I’m so glad you are learning how to deal with it. I wish you all the best as you move forward!

  22. Kelly o. says:

    I can really appreciate this dialog. I have been with my partner for 7 years. He swept me off my feet. I had early warning signs and my friends all were warning me that he wasn’t exhibiting normal behavior. I have my own issues and have been in a 12 step recovery group and therapy for several years. I realize now he was exhibiting OCD behavior early in our relationship and I was the object of his compulsive thinking. It has been an eye opening experience. My hope is that he will one day get treatment. He admits he has binge eating disorder but he thinks he can control it. I know deep down he is a good guy but his inability to get help is destroying our marriage. The verbal abuse is the worse thing. I’m just learning about the distorted thinking patterns and the projection behavior he exhibits is disturbing. I really wish there were some support groups for the family members who live with these people it is very frustrating and I don’t know if I will be able to stay unless he gets some help.

    • Hi Kelly, Thank you for sharing. It sounds as if you’ve been a supportive partner but the bottom line, as you know, is your husband has to want help to get better. I wish you both all the best.

  23. Francesca says:

    Hi. I’ve been with my husband for 7 years married for 2 years the first 5 years were lovely.One day he told me that he was diagnosed with OCD before we met and had CBT and prozac for it but was on top of it . He was always very loving but classic OCD rigid everything in its place lots of routines but I could live with this .However since our wedding 2 years ago he has left me 3 times and threatened me on so many other occasions. The second time he left a day after he had stood in the kitchen kissing me asking where did I fancy going for the weekend . The next evening he left !!!!! After accusing me of forgetting to give the dog water this escalated and we did row he packed his bags and left .2 weeks later he wanted to try again but he had already moved into a flat he said he would stay in it until we sure this would work . I found it so hard my husband who I said my vows to for better for worse was only prepared to take the for better part of the vow. If I cried in frontt of him he would say you are making this impossible it’s not going to work if you’re going to do that . anyway 5 weeks ago we had just come back from a fabulous 2 weeks holiday he texted me saying you’re my soul mate my sexy wife you and I have amazing times to come I love you so much. But next day I brought up the flat and he got annoyed and I cried he walked out the next morning he texted my phone and said this marriage is over you had a 20 minute go at me over the flat you will be the death of me don’t ever contact me again and sure enough he wouldn’t take my calls .this week he has written a letter saying he is so very sorry and has no idea why he keeps doing this he said he doesn’t blame me for anything it’s all him and can’t understand why he himself behaves like this . Is this OCD with black and white thinking or is he just not that into me anymore .thanks

    • Hi Francesca, I am so sorry you and your husband are struggling. I’m not a therapist and am not qualified to diagnose your husband or even speculate as to what his issues might be. OCD can certainly become quite complicated, and I would strongly suggest that you and your husband seek professional help to try to sort out what is going on. I wish you luck as you forge ahead.

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