I’ve always thought of myself as someone who looks for nuance. I try to think critically about things I hear before I form an opinion. Gray areas tend to stand out to me more than black-and-white ones. And yet, when it comes to addiction and mental health, I’ve had to fight the tendency to engage in black-and-white thinking.
This thought pattern is common in people with addictions. It’s often one of the ways we rationalize our continued drinking or using; for example, “I’m going to mess up anyway so I might as well just have one more glass”…and then another…and then another. These thought patterns can stick even after you remove substances. You have to actively work to interrupt them.
This can be hard. Ironically, all-or-nothing thinking can cause a roadblock in combating all-or-nothing thinking. For example, you might believe that your life should immediately get better when you get sober, and when it doesn’t, feel defeated. This could prevent you from doing the work—work that includes learning to identify and change unhealthy patterns like all-or-nothing thinking.
When I first got sober, I knew that the work would really start once I removed substances. I was excited about my future progress. So excited, in fact, that I thought I could immediately start doing everything I’d ever wanted to accomplish all at once. This led to undue stress.
There are a lot of ways that people engage in this thought pattern. They can categorize relationships, interactions, or even themselves as either “good” or “bad,” rather than dynamic and complex. As the therapy app Talkspace puts it, “Black and white thinking can make you hypersensitive to others’ opinions and make it difficult to accept criticism without deep insecurity. That can prevent you from genuine growth and self-compassion.”
This type of thinking, Talkspace points out, can either cause low self-esteem or the inability to face your flaws. Either extreme can make it hard to build self-awareness, a key aspect of addiction recovery.
All-or-nothing thinking can also be used as a justification for relapse. People may think, “my life is falling apart, I might as well use again and mess it up even more,” or “I’m not where I need to be in sobriety, so I might as well drink.” As addiction is a chronic brain disease, people will often find ways to rationalize substance use. For this reason, it’s helpful to combat this type of thinking throughout your recovery.
But even if you’re feeling solid in your sobriety, it will always improve quality of life to see yourself, your relationships, and the world with more nuance. The intense highs and lows of all-or-nothing thought patterns can be stressful and exhausting.
A study in the journal Psychological Science found that people’s perceptions of others’ emotions were affected by whether they were given binary or fluid categories. In this sense, black-and-white thinking can reinforce itself—and more expansive thinking can do the same.
Increasing your emotional vocabulary and emotional intelligence will help. One simple place to start is by looking at a feelings wheel, which can help you understand your own emotions with more nuance. Becoming more self-aware about your feelings will inherently help you understand those of others.
It’s also important to recognize that most things in life and relationships are nuanced. If you find yourself thinking in terms of fixed categories like “good” and “bad”—especially when it comes to your self-worth—it’s probably time to question and redirect your thoughts.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. Amatus Recovery Centers across the country will help you challenge unhealthy thought patterns, building quality of life in long-term recovery. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will share the coping skills they’ve learned personally and professionally. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.