The Dichotomous Thinking Right/Wrong Trap
Dichotomous thinking is known as a cognitive distortion. It messes with your mind, can interfere with your ability to make decisions, leads you to faulty conclusions, and gets in the way of your happiness in all sorts of ways.
What is the meaning or definition of dichotomous thinking?
Dichotomous thinking is black-or-white, all-or-nothing, 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 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
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.The fear of making the “wrong” choice can have many negative repercussions:
- If everything feels like life and death, you’ll be constantly triggering the adrenalin rush and subsequent drain of fight, flight, or freeze.
- You 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.)
- Your mind keeps going around in circles of awful outcomes.
- You can’t sleep because of dwelling on looming decisions.
You procrastinate in situations that require choices.
You keep making the decision of no-decision.
You don’t take risks. (And the simplest of things can end up feeling like a big risk.)
Debunking the dichotomous thinking right/wrong trap
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.
For more info and help with anxiety, check out products I created while I helped clients overcome anxiety and experience stress relief:
Help for Anxiety and Stress Relief Books
Help for Anxiety and Stress Relief Hypnosis Recordings
- Ann Silvers