Finding Gray in Black-and-White Thinking in Complex PTSD

January 17, 2019 Traci Powell

Black and white thinking in complex PTSD can lead to emotional flashbacks and missed opportunities. Learn to manage these thoughts and move into the grey zone.

Black-and-white thinking is common to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When you are traumatized, especially repeatedly like in complex PTSD, you begin to believe that life is all good or all bad. Unfortunately, it’s more common to lean towards all bad, because that is what the traumatic experiences you lived through taught you. 

When I was a child, I was given the consistent message that I was not wanted and was a bother. In addition, I learned that even though adults in my life acted at times as though they cared about me, that caring generally ended with some form of abuse. Over time, it became embedded in my brain that I was all bad and no one was to be trusted. 

This black-and-white thinking helped give me a false sense of control and security at the time. Not wanting to experience the disappointment of finding out someone I thought might actually care didn’t, I believed no one cared or saw me as anything but worthless. This way, I wasn’t let down and I was never surprised when I saw the mean side of the people in my life.

The Problem with Black-and-White Thinking and Complex PTSD

While extreme, black-and-white thinking can be a form of coping during the traumatic times, eventually it becomes a habit that no longer serves you as an adult. It fosters intense insecurities that need constant reassurance and results in missed opportunities, because of misjudging a situation. Black-and-white thinking can result in habitual assumptions of worst-case-scenarios, leaving you unable to tolerate your own mistakes, and causing you to decide you're a total failure. This just feeds the insecure child in you and can lead you down the path of a complex PTSD emotional flashback

This happened to me this past week. My therapist wanted to try something new to help me cope with my complex PTSD, but it became too overwhelming for me. My anxiety soared through the roof and I refused to participate. Not missing a beat, my therapist was her usual supportive and understanding self. I, however, wasn’t hearing a word of her support, because I was too busy telling myself that I was a total failure and that she hated me because I wouldn’t do what she was asking of me. 

Ultimately, I left her office in tears, knowing I could never go back. I decided I had to cancel all of my future appointments. Fortunately, a friend called me the next day. I told her what had happened and that I knew I could never go back. My friend, understanding my complex PTSD and what I’m like in an emotional flashback, very kindly suggested perhaps I was taking my impression of the situation to an extreme. Her feedback helped me identify my extreme thinking and was just what I needed to come out of the emotional flashback enough to decide to keep my appointments. 

When I saw my therapist today, she greeted me with her usual smile. I walked in worried I'd be chastised for being such a noncompliant patient. The fact is, those thoughts never even crossed her mind and rather than chastise me, she complimented me for just being willing to give her idea a try. 

Find the Gray to Help Ease the Black-and-White Thinking of Complex PTSD

When we allow ourselves to jump to black-and-white thinking due to complex PTSD we deny ourselves the good things that life can bring. My therapist has been a constant, caring guide in my life for over four years. I would only have been hurting myself if I had canceled my appointments and continued thinking she believed I was horrible and never wanted to see me again. The truth is, I decided those things for her, while she never even thought them. 

Breaking the black-and-white thinking habit is difficult when you live with complex PTSD, but it’s not impossible. When you hear yourself saying words like "never," "all," "nothing," "nobody" or "everybody," consider that just maybe you are stuck in the black-and-white trap. 

The truth is, very little in life is all-or-nothing. Do your best to recognize these unhealthy thinking patterns and then question how realistic they really are. Ask yourself what evidence you have to support your extreme thoughts. If you're not able to change your thinking at the moment, reach out to a support person who can help you look at the situation you are judging objectively.

As you pay more attention to your habitual extreme thought patterns, you’ll find yourself moving out of black-and-white land and begin living life more in the gray zone.  

APA Reference
Powell, T. (2019, January 17). Finding Gray in Black-and-White Thinking in Complex PTSD, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 13 from

Author: Traci Powell

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