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  • Writer's pictureSarah Covey

Ask a Therapist: On Dichotomous Thinking

Q: I find myself thinking about things as if there is one good and one bad way to conceptualize a topic.  How can I break free from this black-and-white thinking pattern?

A: You are certainly not the only one experiencing the challenges with this attempt to make sense of things in a dichotomous way! Essentially, when you see things as concrete opposites – good or bad, success or failure, right or wrong, all or nothing, us and them – you tend to limit your ability to process effectively. Most healthy processing involves consideration of the spectrum between the two extreme polarities. Seeing the grey is an important step that allows a person to enter into a more nuanced approach to a topic or a decision.

For example, let’s assume that you have a pattern of going out each morning for a run at a particular time of day and for an expected period of time and intensity.  What happens if you miss your alarm and wake up realizing that you no longer have time to get out for your planned activity as a result? Do you tend to think that you have missed your opportunity for the day and that your exercise will now have to wait until tomorrow?

That all-or-nothing thinking could be replaced with flexible thinking that allows you to see the possibility for other forms of movement in the day – a 20-minute walk on your lunch break, some weightlifting after work, or some yoga stretching in the evening could still happen if you can shift your mindset to accommodate it. All is not lost even though that dichotomous thinking distortion would like us to believe so!

What about a situation where someone thinks differently than you? Do you automatically assume that they are on one side of the issue and you are on the other, as if there are only two ways to think about something? Do you tend to organize people in your brain in terms of two different camps – either they are with me or they are against me?

The truth is, most people live in the “middle space” between two opposites in terms of their perspectives and beliefs. When we are able to conceptualize the possibility that people are actually more aligned with us than against us we can move into healthier conversations and relationships. It’s possible that I can both agree and disagree with someone on a variety of points if I’m willing to open myself up to common ground.

Do you struggle with dichotomous thinking? If so, try to determine other ways of conceptualizing that allow for a both/and perspective which is expansive and helpful rather than an either/or position which may keep you stuck in unhealthy mental patterns.

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