OCD and Black and White Thinking

 

foto76 freedigitalphotos.net

foto76 freedigitalphotos.net

I am continuing to share some of my older posts as I work on completing my book. The post below originally appeared in April 2012: 

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 honked his horn, Dan would be 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 and 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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11 Responses to OCD and Black and White Thinking

  1. grannyK says:

    I don’t know if this is the same thing, and I have come a long way with this, but for me I am sure everything is going to be horrible when faced with a new experience. Even with something as simple as going to a new store in a part of town I’m not familiar with. ( I will get lost! They won’t have what I need! ). When I start a new job, I’m so sure it will be a horrible experience that I am actually sick to my stomach before going. I have learned to calm myself and remind myself that I don’t have a clue what will happen so I can keep my mind open to good things too.

    • Thanks for sharing Granny K. To me, what you describe sounds like catastrophizing, which is described in the cognitive distortions link in my post. I’m happy to hear you’ve come a long way with this!

  2. Astrid says:

    I don’t have OCD, but I do have obsessive thoughts soemtimes and they are very much black-and-white. For example, when I had some physical ailments (which turned out to be completely benign), I was convinced I had cancer and, worse yet, wouldn’t make it to the end of the year. That was 2008.

  3. The big thing for me is to catch myself when I’m thinking in black and white. I spent so many years thinking in terms of all or nothing that it became a habit hard to break. As I’ve become more aware of it, it’s easier to push it back into the background. I still tend to call myself a failure quickly if I don’t do something 100 percent “right” the first time or two I try it.

  4. I have found black and white thinking interesting. I am told I experience this type of thinking (since it is also a BPD trait) and I would say that not seeing grey has helped me sometimes. Shoving a damaging friend into one category with chance of escape allows me to let go of them with little to no pain.

    I believe our society is full of black and white thinking. For example, male and female. Yes, we have diverse genders and sexualities that are staking their rightful claim but the status quo is you will be a man or a woman and act accordingly. Basically, I have found it confusing that I’m supposed to stop my black and white thinking when I’m surrounded by it.

    • Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, Kristen! Like so many other topics, writing about black and white thinking is often easier than dealing with it. As you say, maybe sometimes it can be a good thing, and there are so many “acceptable black and white thoughts” in our society. I guess we shouldn’t see black and white thinking as all bad (which would be black and white thinking, right? :)) and maybe just try to be aware of when that pattern of thinking is not working for us or causing us problems, and then try to change it…………if that makes any sense.

      • Exactly 😛 It makes sense. Especially in mental health I believe we’re taught that there are good behaviours and bad behaviours. The same with our disorder, it’s supposed to be all bad but there are good parts to it or soemthing good that we have learned.

  5. C says:

    Janet,
    Can I e-mail you to talk privately? I have a couple questions I’d love to bounce off you!
    -C

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