You might know dichotomous thinking by one of it’s other common names: black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking. It’s also sometimes called “polarized thinking.” If you had no idea what dichotomous thinking was, you might have some idea from it’s other names. In a nutshell, it’s a way of looking at the world as extremes or binaries: yes or no, up or down, on or off. The shades of gray between black and white tend to get ignored. And this can cause problems in how we live our lives.
One problem is that dichotomous thinking limits the possibilities. For example, what a difference between If I don’t go now then I’ll never get to go and I’m not going now but I will make plans to go next summer. Or I can’t go on my dream vacation, but I can afford to do these three things that are part of my dream vacation rather than miss out on everything.
For another, it can lead to feeling powerless in many areas of life. For example, in this thinking, either I can do something or I can. I succeed or I fail. So if I am taking a calculus class and I score a 60% on a test, I’m likely to conclude that I can’t do calculus if my only choices are success or failure. And if I can’t do calculus, then what’s the point in trying? I might as well give up and be a failure. On the other hand, if I can see between the extremes, then I can see that while 60% is not the score I’d prefer to have, it’s not nothing. It’s something I can build on. Importantly, in this view, I’m not a complete failure and I am likely willing to continue studying and may eventually improve my scores as a result. Think about sports and music: how many skilled athletes or musicians picked up a ball or a guitar and were instant experts? It takes practice and an ability to see that a person can be more than either “terrible” or “great” at playing. In fact, to use sports as the example, one athlete might be superb at three-point shots but terrible at free throws; we need more choices than simply “good” and “bad” to describe this player.
“Absolutes do not exist in this universe. If you try to force your experiences into absolute categories, you will be constantly depressed because your perceptions will not conform to reality. You will set yourself up for discrediting yourself endlessly because whatever you do will never measure up to your exaggerated expectations” – David Burns
Dichotomous thinking is often present in depression and anxiety and it can lead to increased rumination (which itself often leads to increased depression). We can see how by looking back at the previous example of the math test. If my only options are success or failure, then I more than likely considered this test a failure, which I can then beat myself up about. If I can recognize that the grade shows I have plenty of room for improvement but that I did get a lot of points, then I can see that even though I have room for improvement, I also am not starting from the beginning. I can tell myself that next time instead of binge-watching Netflix, I’ll study, for example.
So how can you tell if you have a tendency to look at life through dichotomous lenses? You might ask some close friends whom you trust if they have noticed the tendency. Another option is to monitor how you are describing things, whether to yourself in your inner monologue or to others. Two words can act as clues that you are likely to be thinking dichotomously: “always” and “never.” Watch for other extremes that assume or imply that there is only one or the other, with no middle ground, such as “good” and “bad.” If you have trouble catching yourself, you might invite a trusted friend to point out to you when they hear you making statements that indicate dichotomous thinking. If this isn’t an option, listen for it in the conversations of others or when you are watching TV. Identifying it in others’ speech will help you to notice it in your own thinking. For bonus points, when you notice it, see if you can find one or two additional options to those assumed in the dichotomous thinking.
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