The Dichotomous Thinking Right/Wrong Trap
Dichotomous thinking is one of the cognitive distortions that messes with your mind. It can interfere with your ability to make decisions, lead you to faulty conclusions, and get in the way of your happiness in all sorts of ways.
What's in This Post
|What is the Meaning or Definition of Dichotomous Thinking?
|Dichotomous Thinking vs. Paradoxical Thinking
|Polarized Dichotomous Thinking Creates Mind Traps
|The Polarized Dichotomous Thinking Right/Wrong Mind Trap
|Dichotomous Thinking Right/Wrong Trap Example
|How to Overcome Right/Wrong Dichotomous Thinking -- Exercise
|Overcoming Dichotomous Polarized Thinking Worksheets
What is the Meaning or Definition of Dichotomous Thinking?
Dichotomous thinking is also called black-or-white thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, or polarized thinking.
The "di" in dichotomous means two. With dichotomous thinking, there are only two options.
It is not a very real way of viewing the world. Most things, in reality, have more than two options. Most situations have a whole continuum of possibilities between the two polar opposites.
Dichotomous polarized thinking is an example of a cognitive distortion. For more on cognitive distortions, check our my post: List of Cognitive Distortions that Make You Stressed and Depressed.
Dichotomous Thinking vs. Paradoxical Thinking
Dichotomous thinking is either-or thinking.
Paradoxical thinking is and thinking—everything is some of this and some of that.
Even if we take black and white as the epitome of dichotomous thinking, most of what we label black and white isn’t 100% black or 100% white. Most of what we call black and white would actually fall somewhere within the continuum that represents the mixture of each. And there is the whole greyscale in between that is the combination of different degrees of black and white.
Polarized Dichotomous Thinking Creates Mind Traps
Polarized thinking can drive you to:
- See yourself, other people, and things as either all good or all bad
- Be overly attached to your opinion as the only right opinion
- Have difficulty formulating an opinion out of fear that it will be wrong
- Be overly attached to your way of doing things as the only right way
- Have difficulty doing things because you don’t want to do them wrong
- Obsessively dwell on looming decisions
- Procrastinate in situations that require choices
- Keep making the decision of no-decision
- Leave decisions up to other people (This has lots of downsides, including that those people can get tired of having to carry the weight of all the decision-making.)
- Control decisions so that they are “right”
- Fear change
- Avoid healthy risk (And the simplest of things can end up feeling like a big risk.)
Notice that some of the items on the above list are polar opposites of each other.
This cognitive distortion can show up in different people in different ways, or within one person in different ways. The common denominator, however, is that the thoughts and behaviors are on extreme ends of the continuum of possibilities.
The Polarized Dichotomous Thinking Right/Wrong Mind Trap
One of the dichotomous thinking mind traps is that it only allows for a right and a wrong.
Dichotomous thinking can create excruciating fear and anxiety anytime there is a decision to be made because of a belief that there is only an absolutely right direction to go in and everything else would take you in an absolutely wrong direction.
When you think everything only has 2 possible decision outcomes—one of them “right” and the other “wrong”—you can get totally stalled out with any decision. Something as simple as what to have for dinner can become overwhelmingly uncomfortable if there is a “right” choice and everything else is “wrong”.
It’s like the scene in the Indiana Jones movie when he has to choose the “right” chalice to drink from. Choosing wisely was life and death. In the movie, there was only one right choice. He had to calculate and analyze the information at hand in order to make the right choice.
But, very little in the non-fantasy real world is life and death. Most things have elements of good and bad, and multiple paths on the other side of any decision.
Dichotomous Thinking Right/Wrong Trap Example
Let’s say that you have to decide where to go to college and you notice that you are worrying that you will either:
a) pick the right college and degree leading to happiness and success, or
b) make the wrong choice and be doomed.
What possible results could actually be between those 2 options? Is there a c), d), e) . . .?
Some other possibilities:
c) you make the best calculated choice given the information and experience you currently have, and you make the best of your choice whatever it is,
d) you make the best calculated choice given the information and experience you currently have and make another choice if it isn’t working out,
e) any number of college choices could still lead to the same end result just from different directions,
f) it doesn’t matter which college, what really matters is how you apply yourself to your studies,
g) it doesn’t matter which college, what really matters is getting the degree,
h) . . .
I’m not advocating taking such a big decision lightly. It’s important to take your time and weigh pros and cons. I’m just suggesting that you give yourself a break from the pressure of “There is one right decision and everything else is wrong.”
How to Overcome Right/Wrong Dichotomous Thinking -- Exercise
Notice when it scares you to make a relatively minor decision because you fear not making the one and only right decision.
Ask yourself if you can see options other than there is one right decision and everything else leads to doom and gloom.
Push yourself to make a decision so that you stretch your decision-making muscles and get more OK with the concept that there are many possible outcomes and it’s really OK.
Overcoming Dichotomous Polarized Thinking Worksheets
Two of my workbooks include information and exercises for identifying and overcoming cognitive distortions including dichotomous polarized thinking. Each of these books provides different opportunities for working on this and other cognitive distortions:
- Ann Silvers