Dichotomous thinking or as it's often referred to as “black and white” thinking has existed as long as man has been alive. It is a survival tactic and allows us to make sense of the world around us by placing it into two categories, good or bad. It is a binary lens that we use to simplify circumstances in order to understand their meaning and attempt to navigate choices. It's the gut reaction we can have when faced with dangerous situations. It’s how we determine whether we like a certain food or whether we should make that business decision. Have you ever looked at a person and thought they were immediately judging you based on their facial expression? It works really well in certain aspects of our life but seems to have negative consequences if it is the only view we have in relationships. This presents a problem when we are having an argument with our partner and feel that we are right and they are wrong without taking the time to see the narrative from their point of view. In this post, we will be covering how dichotomous thinking can narrow our perspectives and 3 ways in which we can move toward a more “gray” lens within the context of interpersonal relationships.
When we are engaged in dichotomous thinking, we are creating a cognitive distortion of an event. What this means is that we are molding a situation to have a different outcome than what may happen in order to keep ourselves safe from it. An example of this can be when we see someone whispering to another coworker and immediately we shift into the thought that they might be talking about us. We then categorize that person as “bad” and create a reality in which they are gossiping and saying mean things. Why this can be problematic because we do not often attempt to disprove this thinking and believe it to be fact. The purpose of this distorted view of the world is to protect ourselves from being “hurt.” The impact of it is that we walk around believing that our story about others is the only story and isolate or seek confrontation due to this believed injustice. Other areas where this can impede our development as individuals are when we are applying for jobs, school, taking a test, etc. If we believe that we are “not worthy” and “bad” we act accordingly because we prevent ourselves from listening to evidence of the contrary.
This brings us to the extreme cases of dichotomous thinking that can lead to disorders such as GAD, general anxiety disorder, and BPD, borderline personality disorder. In these circumstances, disordered thinking can become so extreme that it prevents the individual from seeing interactions for what they are and distorts their reality which in turn creates havoc on their nervous system and leads to mood dysregulations and panic attacks. 9 out of 10 people experience struggles with dichotomous thinking throughout their lives. It is the only way we process the world as children and then eventually we develop into more abstract forms of viewing the world.
So how does “gray” thinking fit as the anecdote in this mix? 3 tips on how to break down this issue if you are experiencing it:
First, we determine how we are processing the world around us. If you are reading this and notice that you often get anxious over what others consider “mundane” then it might be helpful to take a step back and consider how you subconsciously are dissecting a presenting problem. Journaling can often assist as it is a documented form of memory retrieval.
It is critical that we develop problem-solving skills and find ways in which we can self-soothe when we are faced with a distorted thought.
When we are speaking to a partner or friend, it is helpful to ask, “How did you hear me say this?” By presenting your intention and leaving room for error with your impact, it creates space for the other to see that you’re being open to their perspective. The same can be said when you’re having a conversation and realize that your inner alarm is ringing. Simply stating, “The story I’m telling myself is,...” opens you up for multiple interpretations of the dialogue.
One last question to ask yourself is; are there relationships in my life where I am repeating these dichotomous thinking patterns with? If so, is it possible that this is my tool for regulating myself? These are learned survival skills that we attributed from a young age. As great as it is to protect ourselves, it also prevents real connection because we are silencing the other person's voice and
If we cannot have circumstances with multiple lenses, how will we grow?
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