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Black & White Thinking in Narcissistic Relationships

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.


What is black and white thinking? Black and white thinking is a type of cognitive distortion. Sometimes called "dichotomous thinking," it's a way of thinking where there are no shades of grey. Everything is either black or it's white. It's good or it's bad. It's all or it's nothing. There are no gradations, no nuance, no neutral territory. It's just one or the other.

People who are pathologically narcissistic usually have a lot of trouble with black and white thinking. It's very difficult for them to see any positive qualities in something they feel is bad, and vice versa. They don't appear to be able to sustain conflicting emotions; they can't be angry at someone and still feel positively about them. They can't like someone and accept that they have a flaw or made a mistake. Everything is very extreme with this kind of person, and black and white thinking is part of the reason why.

If they like something, they love it. If they dislike something, they hate it. If something is disappointing, it's the end of everything. They seem to see no real emotional differences in things, and they react to these extreme emotions in ways that can be confusing to the people around them, because they seem so out of proportion to what is going on. Either there is an overreaction because their feelings have overwhelmed them or an under-reaction because they are so disconnected from their emotions, and either way, people around the narcissist have trouble making sense out of it. Black and white thinking is very stressful because of its rigid extremity that allows no competing or mitigating information, and not just for the narcissist. For others as well.

Black and white thinking constitutes a kind of denial that usually occurs in tandem with other cognitive distortions like filtering and disqualifying the positive, where the things that do not fit into the narrative are disqualified, rejected or re-framed in order to fit into it. For example, you do something nice for the narcissist, but when they split on you, it is either forgotten about, dismissed as not mattering, or your motive for doing it is re-framed to fit into their now all-bad image of you. This is extremely hurtful to people and is one of the most unpleasant and painful aspects of dealing with pathologically narcissistic people: nothing is safe. Even things that were OK or even good at one time now no longer are. Everything is now seen and re-framed through the lens of their current perception, which is that you are bad and so is everything you do or have ever done.

Love-bombing is also an example of black and white thinking, just in the reverse. In love-bombing, the person is being overidealized and seen as all-good. This type of cognitive distortion is one of the reasons is no stability or security with this kind of person, and nothing that can be counted on to stay the same. Except of course, that things will not ever be consistently stable. That can be counted on.

Black and white thinking is related to something called "splitting," as we've covered in several other articles. Because pathologically narcissistic people are emotionally arrested, they cannot resolve emotional contradictions. The idea that a good person could do a bad thing does not compute in their brain. They are unable to resolve the resulting conflict, and they create a separate image of that person as a way of attempting to process the information: "The bad Bobby was mean to me, but the good Bobby was nice." They "split" the person or thing into two separate parts so they can understand the situation better. This is how the brain attempts to resolve this problem. It's a narcissistic defense mechanism that fits the immature way narcissists function as well, because they cannot make sense of these things, yet they require the input and assistance others. The "good" image of the person must therefore be preserved, but the "bad" things have to go somewhere.

We can see clear evidence of splitting in the way they treat others and the things they say. We can also see it in the seemingly separate, extreme version of themselves that they present to the world. These versions are often so extreme and so different that, even though the victim is able to process things normally most of the time, they may end up in engaging in black and white thinking of their own because the behaviors and personas they are seeing seem like they would be unable to co-exist in the same person. The brain likes to categorize things so that it can try to understand them, but when a contradiction cannot be resolved, more than one category may be created for the same object.

This happens to both narcissists and victims alike. It is also part of what helps create cognitive dissonance in victims: narcissists seem to defy categorization in many ways, and since black and white thinking and splitting are not as complete or extreme in people who are not narcissists, cognitive dissonance results. Sometimes, though, the contradiction, emotions and information are so conflicting that an entirely new category is created for the narcissist in order to resolve the dissonance in the victim's brain. This can look like many things; for example, the very common belief that narcissists are not human. They've been put in a separate category all by themselves. This is often born of a person's need to protect both themselves and their perceived image of humanity in general. If we accept that humans can and do function the way that narcissists and psychopaths do, this can create a large amount of conflict and distress related to other human beings and how we see the world - and ultimately, ourselves.

Because of this, people often get triggered by the idea of humanizing narcissists. This is one reason some people get upset when they hear that narcissists are disordered or that they've had trauma, etc.: this humanizes narcissists and therefore threatens to re-open what is considered a resolved conflict. Worse, it may even create sympathy for them in some people. These feelings of sympathy trigger fear and hurt in some people, because it is only by seeing the narcissist as an "other" who is completely different from themselves that they feel they can protect themselves. They fear that if this changes, they will find it harder to do this. That's totally understandable, but it's also part and parcel to the same thinking that contributed to the situation in the first place.

Pathologically narcissistic people are different from non-narcissistic people; that's absolutely true, but narcissism as a thing is a very human function because we are all ego-driven. That's why we say that many of the behaviors can show up in anybody under the right (or wrong) circumstances, even if the person is not a narcissist: because they can. Divorcing ourselves completely from this aspect of humanity is not a good idea, even though it can feel necessary when we are healing. It actually makes us more vulnerable, not less - to these traits in others and in ourselves.

A previous article, which was about the dangers of demonizing narcissists, unfortunately triggered some people for this very reason. They felt they were being told narcissists are good people who therefore shouldn't be demonized and this caused a large emotional reaction that made it difficult for them to understand the actual message, which was that black and white thinking blinds us to reality and can actually put us in danger, even though we think it's protecting us. In a sadly ironic twist, it was a very clear demonstration of why of the subject is important. The message was actually opposite of what some people perceived, but because the emotion attached to the thinking is so strong, they were unfortunately unable to hear it.

It's understandable, though. The truth is, the victim in these relationships has often engaged in black and white thinking that is similar to how the narcissist perceives things. It's not the same, but it's similar. It's the brain's way of trying to combat the conflict and keep itself safe. They've had to deny or re-frame perceived negative or abusive aspects of the narcissist in order to see the narcissist as a good person to stay in the relationship, then they've had to deny or re-frame perceived positive or neutral aspects of the narcissist in order to see the narcissist as a bad person to stay out of it. If we can learn to evaluate things in a more balanced, realistic way, if we learn that good behavior, trauma or disorder does not ever excuse or justify abuse, this doesn't need to happen anymore.

The good news is that people who are not narcissists can usually address any cognitive distortions in themselves with reality testing. Because people who are pathologically narcissistic have a different relationship with reality than those who are not narcissists, this can be much more difficult for them to do. It is often not possible for them to assimilate contradictory information into their perceptions and belief structures. That's part of the reason they have the problems they have to begin with.

Cognitive dissonance comes from being unable to resolve a conflict; in this case, the conflict is usually boiled down to whether the narcissist is a good or bad person. But it doesn't even matter. People don't fit into boxes. Good people can do bad things. Bad people can do good things. All people can do all things and if we can stop trying to fit people into a category, evaluating their behavior really does become a lot easier. It speaks for itself, so let it.

From a broader perspective, the idea that human beings are not capable of doing bad or even terrible things, therefore anyone who does bad or terrible things is not human is a dangerous idea. The message we are sending ourselves is that anyone who appears to be human by our standards and in our opinion will not do bad or terrible things. Unfortunately, as many people have found, this is absolutely not true. We need to be very careful that we evaluate people based on their actual behavior, not according to a category or preconceived idea we have of who and what people are supposed to be. That is how we protect ourselves.