By nature of being conscious human beings, each day, people try to make sense of the world. Still, sometimes we make inaccurate shortcuts. These alternative routes make our thoughts biased. They can cause unhelpful thinking styles, also known as cognitive distortions. Because of these distortions, we can end up blaming ourselves for things that are not our fault. Or, we may jump to the worst of conclusions.
There are many cognitive distortions a person can have throughout the day. By learning what they are and naming them when they crop up, we have a better chance of correcting them. We can then prevent them from having a powerful influence on our lives and our moods from day to day.
Aaron Beck, an American psychologist known as the father of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), defined seven cognitive distortions:
- Absolutistic, dichotomous thinking
- Arbitrary interpretation/arbitrary inference
- Selective abstraction
- Inexact labeling
- Magnification and minimization
Dr. David Burns, a student of Beck, described 10 cognitive distortions. Based on Beck’s previous studies, he termed them "unhelpful thinking styles."
- Personalization and blame
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Mislabeling and labeling
- "Should" statements
- Mental filter
- Emotional reasoning
- Disqualifying the positive:
- Magnification and minimization
- mind-reading or the fortune teller's error (jumping to conclusions).
Cognitive-behavioral approaches in psychotherapy aim to release people from black and white or all-or-nothing thinking. Dichotomous thinking imprisons people by limiting their choices when resolving problems. This article will provide general information about this type of distorted thinking. It will also inform ways a person can change their unhelpful way of thinking.
Looking beyond borderline personality disorder to understand dichotomous thinking
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines dichotomous thinking as "the tendency to think in terms of polar opposites—that is, in terms of the best and worst—without accepting the possibilities that lie between these two extremes."
There are three dimensions to dichotomous thinking. They include profit-and-loss thinking, dichotomous beliefs, and a preference for dichotomy. Clinical psychology studies show links between dichotomous thinking and low cognitive abilities.
By itself, dichotomous thinking is not suggestive of any mental health conditions. However, the APA highlights attributions of dichotomous thinking to major depressive disorder. And cognitive distortion is also a symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and other psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. But many people experience dichotomous thinking from time to time, even without a mental health diagnosis.
Dichotomous thinking is a problem when it causes you to make extreme conclusions about the way you view yourself. It’s also problematic when you can’t look at situations realistically. Or when your distorted thoughts stand in the way of making sound decisions.
Black and white thinking can impede healthy relationships. It can also disrupt emotional stability. You may tend to think dichotomously if you often arrange thoughts into black and white. Dichotomous thinking occurs when all you see is good or bad, all or nothing. It is when you see yourself as a complete failure or a success because of others’ criticism or praise. Thinking in this extreme manner could cause you to overreact to things. You may have emotional responses to circumstances.
Unfortunately, dichotomous thinking can lead to severe consequences. Far-reaching emotions can lead to impulsive behavior with a mental health condition like BPD, for example. Another element related to dichotomous thinking is social cognition. Here, personal experiences, other people's actions, and environmental factors can affect a person's behaviors.
Black and white thinking can cause many problems in life. If you think this way, it can lead to difficulty getting things done. Many people don’t realize they are thinking dichotomously. They may not understand how much of a habit it is and how it has changed their lives.
Imagine that you've set a goal to complete five projects by the end of the week. But by the end of the week, you’ve only finished three. The average person might feel disappointed but can see that they’ve put forth a reasonable effort.
A person using dichotomous thinking leaves no room in the mind for a gray area. Others could see completing three projects as something that is "okay." However, with distorted thoughts, it’s got to be either a success or a failure—nothing in between. In this example, since you didn’t finish all five projects, that means the week was an absolute failure.
The daily life of a person with dichotomous beliefs can be stressful. A person can live each day full of anger, depression, and low self-esteem. Even with steadfast efforts, dichotomous thinking can almost feel like self-punishment.
There is dichotomous thinking in the complicated psychological construct of perfectionism. In psychiatry, there is negative and positive perfectionism. High emotional distress has negative correlates.Positive connects a person to lower distress levels and fewer positive effects. Most people look at both the positive and negative ends of a situation. With dichotomous thinking, a person only sees one polarized end. It's an exhausting way to live, but a person can learn to manage it.
How can dichotomous thinking be hurtful?
You don't want to approach your everyday conflicts with dichotomous thinking. You could make wrong conclusions about your circumstances and other people. It's possible that you'll miss chances for compromise and negotiation. Thinking in black and white can keep a person from seeing how extreme decisions affect them.
Dichotomous thinking can wreck relationships because it can cause a person to alternate between devaluing and idealizing others. There are also repetitive cycles of emotional disturbance.
These constant shifts and cycles are reflected not only in a person’s personal life but at work too. With dichotomous beliefs, a person defines their position in a job into rigid categories. This can limit and make it difficult to achieve goals.
School can often reinforce binary thought patterns. In some academic courses, either you pass or fail. It can make it easy to slip into dichotomous thinking. But you can counter those thoughts with a growth mentality. So, instead of succeeding or failing, a student can see the gray areas. They can think of "moving closer" to carrying out goals in increments.
Ways to change your perspective and stop profit-and-loss thinking
Dichotomous thinking can be detrimental to your life's quality. Therapy can help you change your perception. Not only can it help you have a different outlook, but you can gradually change your cognition process. There are progressive steps you can take to recognize automatic thoughts. You can challenge those thoughts with cognitive restructuring.
By finding support for and against specific thoughts, you challenge the cognitive narrative. You can think less and less dichotomously and more rationally and clearly. Examples of a few questions you could ask yourself could be these:
- Am I the only one that sees X the way I do?
- What evidence supports what I’m thinking?
- Could someone else challenge what I’m assuming?
Another way you can reduce biased thoughts is by listing the advantages and disadvantages of keeping the distorted thoughts. Seeing through a black and white lens can lead to a challenging professional and personal life.
Despite being symptoms of other mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and narcissism, dichotomous thinking is treatable.
A mental health professional can help you change the way you think. Having a therapist trained in cognitive therapy can be especially beneficial in changing distorted types of thinking. You can learn to notice how extreme thinking affects your mood, health, and relationships with the help of a psychotherapist.
There are things you can do on your own to help yourself break the pattern of dichotomous thinking. Some methods include:
- By asking questions, you can find out other perspectives and viewpoints.
- Separate your feelings of self-worth from how well you perform a task.
- Consider as many options as you can to limit your thinking to only black or white.
Therapy can help end unhelpful thought patterns.
Dichotomous thinking is a cognitive distortion that could limit your ability to make decisions based on reality. Biased and distorted thoughts are undesirable. But there are ways you can change unhealthful thinking patterns. It is possible to stop automatic thoughts.
Psychotherapy can help you learn to adopt a neutral perspective when presented with conflict or problems. It can help you to stop thinking in terms of extremes—all or nothing—but rather start viewing things as having more gray areas. If you are often prone to binary thinking, explore new ways to think and behave with your therapist so you can begin to improve the quality of your life. Your therapist can guide you to healthier thinking styles that align with reality. Then, with practice and time, you’ll begin to think of the world around you and yourself with a new, balanced perspective.