Dichotomous Thinking: Why An "All-or-Nothing" Mindset is Dangerous and 10 Ways to Change It.
Updated: Feb 3, 2021
By Cassandra Goar MA, LPCC, NCC
Date: January 28, 2021. Published January 31, 2021.
The energy in the United States has become extremely polarized, especially in recent years with more and more people leaning to one side of the political spectrum or the other. However many of us fall somewhere in the middle of either side of the political extremes. But it's not just politics where dichotomous thinking strikes - it happens in relationships and even within ourselves.
What is dichotomous thinking?
As I checked my social media this morning, I saw a post that immediately triggered a visceral reaction in me. I got down-right annoyed! Why? Because the post was the epitome of the type of thinking that is dangerously dividing this country AND it is the type of limiting thinking that I so fervently work with my clients to overcome.
Dichotomous thinking is also referred to as all-or-nothing, black-or-white, thinking. It is the type of thinking that plays into sayings such as 'you're either with us or against us.' Thinking that something is all-good or all-bad, purely right or purely wrong. Basically, it is polarized thinking, absolutist thinking, or thinking in extremes.
You may have noticed that both political party extremes participate in this type of thinking. AND you may have noticed it can also occur in the home. Parents may argue about how best to raise their children; partners may disagree adamantly about how much sex they should be having or what chores each person is responsible for; and friends may become divided on issues, both believing they are absolutely right and the other person wrong.
What's wrong with dichotomous thinking?
The problem with this type of thinking is that, in reality, life is so nuanced! There are a million shades of grays, what-ifs, and both-ands. So, when we participate in dichotomous thinking, it causes a multitude of problems:
-It creates an "us vs. them" mentality
-It breeds self-righteousness, rigidity, stubbornness, and resentment
-It labels other people (yet, conversely we dislike when other people label us)
-It can disrupt and divide relationships, friendships, and make us feel isolated and lonely
-It limits communication, collaboration, and compromise
-It prevents us from learning, growing, expanding, and adapting
On top of all of that, this all-or-nothing, black-or-white, mindset can harm our mental health! It can make us feel like we are failures, that we are never good-enough, or that other people are not good enough. It can create a strong inner critic that not only eats away at our own happiness but tries to eat away at other people's happiness as well. This can cause distress, tension, and anxiety in ourselves and in our relationships. It can also leave us feeling fatigued, depressed, hopeless, angry, and worthless. If it does this to individuals and relationships, just imagine how this negatively impacts our society over time. (In fact, we're witness to it right now!)
Why do we do it?
First, let me reassure you that you are not a bad person if you have a tendency to think this way. Second, it's not your fault. Yes, you read that correctly - IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT! Despite the fact that human beings are among the most intelligent creatures on earth, we still have very primitive parts of our brain that we relied on long before our higher level, executive functioning truly came on board. These parts of the brain were built for one thing - survival. And it's these parts of the brain that come online when we are engaging in dichotomous thinking.
When humans lived back in clans and small tribes, we had to be able to tell friend from foe using split-second decision making. It literally meant the difference between life and death. So, we developed ways to determine whether someone was like us, and therefore "safe," or not like us, and therefore "dangerous." We had to make these quick decisions with all sorts of things, not just people. So the brain got really good at labeling things "safe/unsafe."
Additionally, we are social creatures, so our survival depended, and in many ways still does depend, (but that's for another discussion) on being part of the group. Division is dangerous when the whole group's cooperation is needed to survive. So, if someone diverged from the group they put themselves at risk of being cast out on their own, which easily meant death, because they were seen as a threat to the health of the group. You can see this 'you're with us or against us' mentality was built for survival and it's really hard to combat hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
Another reason we tend to allow ourselves to fall into this "all-or-nothing" mindset is because, in many ways, it's just easier! People do not like when things are complicated and nuanced, it means we have to do a lot more thinking and, let's face it, we love simple! We like ease. We like comfort. And when something challenges a previously held belief of ours, it creates what's called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we have conflicted or incongruent thoughts, beliefs, actions, or emotions and this causes internal states of discomfort. For example, let's say a couple is having marital issues and one spouse has an affair. The spouse who was cheated on gets angry and hurt because they can't understand why the person they loved would do this. So, they come to the conclusion of: "he/she is just a bad person and sex addict." Boom. Problem solved. How easy was that? Simple. But, the truth is they probably are not a "bad person" or a "sex addict." Instead, it's likely that there were many factors that came into play, including the other non-cheating spouse's contributions to the problems in the relationship. It takes two to tango, after-all. But it's easier to label the other person, cast them out and be done with it, than it is to look at our own faults or to live with the cognitive dissonance of "a good person, who loves me and whom I love, betrayed me and hurt me."
If you're noticing that dichotomous thinking is harming your mental health, relationships, or life satisfaction in any way, it may be a good time to start working on it. And, even though it may not be your fault, it is your responsibility to change it.
10 Ways to Change Your Thinking
So where to begin? Well, the first thing to do is to just notice it! We can't change anything we aren't aware of so just start to pay attention to when you may be engaged in dichotomous thinking. Once you notice it, then you can take action:
Ask yourself "Is this true?" If it's something that can be researched, do your research! If it's a false belief about yourself, start to challenge those beliefs. Does the occasional mistake mean you're a complete failure? Of course it doesn't.
Have conversations and discussions which are much different than arguments and finger-pointing. Don't seek to teach, seek to understand. If the other person is doing the same, you will both learn a great deal.
When you feel emotional, stop and breathe. It's okay to take a time out and come back to the topic later when your emotions have calmed down a bit. The conversation will go much better this way.
Listen! Get curious about their point of view and seek to truly hear it and understand it. Does the other person have a good point? If yes, it's okay to learn and change your own perspective a little.
Show respect. You're asking for a battle and hurt feelings when you name call, blame, or belittle someone. This applies to the way you speak to yourself as well.
Use "both-and" rather than "either-or." Again, most things are not black or white. Two seemingly opposing things can be true at the same time. For instance, a person can love their spouse and they could have had an affair.
Be willing to be wrong. We are not right 100% of the time and it's okay to be proven wrong.
Compromise when possible. Usually there won't be a completely correct answer or solution either way, so it's okay to compromise in many instances.
Consider the exceptions. Truly ask yourself if there are exceptions to your thinking or beliefs. What are the nuances? Are there any times when you could see it differently?
Get Support. It can be difficult to change our dichotomous thinking patterns, especially when they are rooted deep within our conscious or unconscious beliefs. That's when seeing a counselor or therapist can be helpful. They can help you learn to recognize these thinking patterns and challenge limiting beliefs that are keeping you stuck. You may be surprised to experience improvements in your relationships and mental health just by learning to challenge your dichotomous thinking.
Please remember, it's important to be gentle with yourself as you try to change your thinking patterns. No one is perfect, we are all human, and that means we will slip-up and make mistakes. You WILL catch yourself engaging in dichotomous thinking again and again, and that's okay! The point is to catch it and notice it so you can do something about it. Just take a breath, and try again. Remember this is a life-long practice, and the more you practice, the more natural it will become. You've got this.
If you are struggling with dichotomous thinking and would like professional support, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website for more information at www.re-emergecounseling.com
Cassi Goar is a Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate (in the state of Colorado) and Nationally Certified Counselor*
*At the time this article was written.