Thinking in extremes is a form of cognitive distortion commonly referred to as “black and white” thinking. There is seemingly no middle ground between the two polar opposite states. For example, if I try a new flavor of ice cream, then it is either good or bad. There is no “just okay.” It is applied to just about every aspect of a person’s life–their interactions with others, their intelligence or personal skills, situational events, even hobbies. It often causes the person to feel as though they need to be a perfectionist or sends them toward depression when they cannot achieve their ridiculously high standards. People on the spectrum as well as those with Anxiety disorders or Borderline Personality Disorder are all susceptible to thinking in this way, but why?
There is a fairly large overlap of Autism and Anxiety, and because of this I think there is also a higher rate of “black and white thinking” as a defense mechanism in those groups. There is a world of unknowns with both disorders, yet thinking in such a rigid way often allows us to control how we navigate those worlds. If I go to the mall then I am going to be overwhelmed by all the sensory input so malls are bad. There is some comfort in knowing that if I go to a mall I’m going to have a bad time, therefore I don’t go. There is no room to think that maybe on a Wednesday afternoon when the majority of kids are in school and others are working that the mall might be quieter and less crowded. The same can be said in regards to our opinions of other people. If someone slights me then they become bad. It is easier and safer than trying to navigate to complexity of trust and relationships. It takes care of all the what if’s by assuming that if they have wronged me once then they will likely do it again. Can a person be good and bad at the same time–yes, but that means having to trust them and be vulnerable because of the lack of understanding of body language and manipulation and having naivety due to the lack of Theory of Mind skills.
Extreme thinking is also quite logical in nature–if it isn’t this, then it is that. It is common for people on the spectrum to also be very logical and pedantic. The best way to do something might not be the simplest way, but it will be the most logical usually. We also have a rigid moral compass that adheres strictly to rules. If there is a rule then we can’t break it in most cases, and the same goes if someone else breaks a rule, it flags our affinity for justice and fairness. I was always a rule follower which made it easy for teachers in elementary school and high school to like me, but it made fitting in and navigating friendships difficult. Most kids will break rules if only to test the limits of the boundaries placed upon them, but kids on the spectrum may take rules as absolutes which puts a strain on the friendships with kids who are independent thinkers and have strong personalities (the same ones who should probably advocate for their Autistic peers). That same rigidity also breeds peer pressure and bullying usually.
Although cognitive distortion is a way of thinking, there are several exercises that may help to make a rigid brain more pliable in addition to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy if that is an option. Those exercises may include Socratic questioning which is, in my opinion, the Scientific method of mindfulness. Rather than just allowing our brains to cruise on auto-pilot being mindful or using a method like Socratic questioning forces us to have a discussion about the how, why, and what of our thoughts and feelings. It is part of restructuring the brain to think in a healthier way rather than in extremes. Journaling and recording thoughts are also a good way to be able to process through your emotions as well as guided imagery or making a list of alternatives.
Remember the list at the beginning of this blog? Try a short alternatives exercise by taking those sets of opposites and naming one word that falls within the middle of the two. Example: Black–Grey–White.
(Make up your own!)