Black And White Thinking Leads To Depression

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Black And White Thinking Leads To Depression

In my practice I find clients who suffer from depression tend to see things as all dark on bad days and all light when times are good. This black-and-white thinking pattern sets up the brain for mood extremes, which make emotional balance difficult. Because black-and-white thinking leads us to believe that good and bad cannot coexist, it keeps us from enjoying the everyday situations that are neither amazing nor terrible.

Balanced thinking

Realizing that there is good and bad in almost every situation can open up our minds. We then perceive the positive aspects to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in; we have balanced thinking. The true story of a young World War II prisoner illustrates finding the good in an obviously bad situation.

The Best Gift Ever

A young American boy named John was interred with his family in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. The living arrangements kept the men and woman in separate barracks, and as an underage boy, John was assigned to live with his mother.Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 4.36.05 PM

One night when John was visiting his father’s barracks, he realized he was past curfew. He was terrified. The Japanese guards were well known for their cruel punishments of disobedience. With his heart racing in fear, John hurried back to his mother’s barracks, hoping to arrive before his absence was noted. As John headed down the hall, he saw a guard coming towards him. John froze. He saw the guard reach for his side and expected to be sliced with a bayonet. Instead, the guard reached into his pocket and pulled out a yo-yo, which he held out to John.

In surprise, John took it. Once safely with his mother, John began to play with his new toy. Previously, he had had no form of entertainment and had struggled to keep his mind off his constant hunger pains. But now his days were filled with interest and fun. John played with his yo-yo constantly and became quite skilled at it. Years later as John recounted the story; his eyes would fill with tears. He realized the yo-yo was the best present he had ever received.

He explained that over the years, he had thought about the guard many times. He realized that although the guards were capable of harsh punishment and cruelty, they had another side—they were neither all good nor all bad. Understanding that things are rarely all black or all white requires maturity. While a child’s moods are very simple—I am happy or I am not happy and I am hungry or I am not hungry—mature thinking requires seeing complexities.

Avoid absolute thinking patterns

Distressing events can be explained better in percentages or degrees rather than in terms of all good or all bad. For example, a person who was been physically abused as a child may feel inclined to say, “My abuse was the worst possible thing that could ever happen. I must never be abused again. I won’t survive it again, so I must always avoid every possible situation that could lead me there.”

Focusing On Solutions

This pattern of thinking creates a victim mentality and keeps her from moving beyond the problem toward a solution. To find solutions rather than justification for her way of thinking, the person could reframe their response regarding the abuse in the following way: “I am a survivor of abuse. It was a painful experience, but I have grown and learned from my experience. I am skilled in self-defense now, and if a situation like that comes up again, I am prepared.”


Life is a balance of good and bad, of shadow and light. We are healthier if we seek for integration—if we learn to accept the positive with the negative. Most of us are filled with both positive and negative traits and experiences. When we balance our strengths with our weaknesses, we find harmony and peace in ourselves and with others. We find the “yin and yang” of life.  We are better able to battle depression.

See also my post on cognitive behavior therapy:

Another helpful post on depression:

Camille Curtis Foster, LCSW

Contact Me / 801.472.7134

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