Understanding Dichotomous Thinking And What It Means For You

By: Michael Arangua

Updated August 09, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Have you ever heard the term ‘dichotomous thinking?’ If you haven’t then don’t feel too bad, not a lot of people have. Many people refer to this type of thinking as ‘black and white thinking.’ When you are using dichotomous thinking, it means you’re looking at everything as an either-or situation. That means, you only see good and bad, right and wrong, but nothing in the middle. There is no ‘gray area’ for you because you see everything as only one way or the other.

About Dichotomous Thinking

This type of thinking alone isn’t indicative of any mental disorder, but it is often present in borderline personality disorder. Dichotomous thinking is a symptom of this disorder, and it can lead to a lot of difficulty in life and even problems accomplishing the things that you want. Many people have a habit of dichotomous thinking without being aware of it, and may not understand the impact it has on life. The ability to only see things as one way or another can lead to difficulties, though.

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When was the last time that you set a goal for yourself? Let’s say you had a goal to finish ten projects by the end of the week. At the end of the week, you’ve only accomplished eight. Now what? For most people, they might be a little disappointed, but they’ll also be able to look at accomplishing eight projects as a good start and a good effort. For someone who uses dichotomous thinking, there is no gray area of ‘okay.’ Instead, there is only success and failure. Because your goal was ten and you only got eight, it would mean that you failed.

Going through life in terms of only total success or total failure would lead to stress, low self-esteem, and even feelings of depression or anger. Spending time thinking that you’ve failed, even when you’ve made a valiant effort and done well, can feel like self-punishment. For most, finishing eight projects instead of ten might be a sign that your goals were a little too high and you should slow them down a little. For someone with this type of thinking, however, that’s not possible, and instead, they feel upset at the failure every time they don’t meet the goal.

In psychology, the official term is actually ‘splitting,’ though most people don’t think of that term in conjunction with this process. When an average person looks at a situation, they can usually see the positive and negative aspects of it at the same time. Someone with this method of thinking can only see one or the other. Either the situation is good, or the situation is bad. There is no ‘mix’ or ‘partial’ aspect to it. There’s just one or the other. It’s a difficult way to live, but it can be managed.

Borderline Personality Disorder

The disorder that dichotomous thinking pertains to is called borderline personality disorder, and it’s characterized by instability in mood, relationships, self-image and even behavior. Someone who is living with this disorder likely has difficulty making plans for themselves and their lives, may be at risk for suicide and self-injury, and may have severe anger, depression or anxiety. They can experience distortions in their thoughts and feelings as well as their sense of themselves, which may lead them to feel empty, misunderstood, and mistreated. If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, seek immediate help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

People with BPD are looking for the same acceptance and care as everyone else, but the thinking patterns that underly the disorder may have convinced them they aren’t worthy. Their relationships may be fast and intense but are typically ended quickly due to the behavior that black and white thinking promotes.

Getting Treatment

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There are different ways to go about treatment for this type of thinking. The first thing to do is to understand and recognize that you’re even doing it. A lot of people don’t even know that they’re doing this because the thinking is completely subconscious, and that means you need to make the thinking a conscious thought. When you finish something (or don’t) the way you want, think about it consciously and recognize whether you’re being positive about what you did accomplish or focusing entirely too much on the things that you didn’t accomplish, being negative.

Getting professional help for this can be a great place to start. A mental health professional will be able to look at a whole lot more than just the dichotomous thinking and borderline personality disorder. That way, they’ll be able to help you overcome all the symptoms and concerns that you’re facing with this disorder, rather than focusing only on a single aspect, making you more successful in general. Working with a therapist can help determine thinking patterns that may hold you back or cause feelings and situations you dislike, regardless of a BPD diagnosis.

The sessions that you go through with a professional are going to focus on different things that happen in your daily life so that you can figure out whether a certain event is a sign of dichotomous thinking and what a moderate method of thinking would mean. For example, you’ll be asked about specific situations and how to create a more balanced middle ground in your thought process. That way, when you come upon different situations in the future, you’ll be able to consciously think about that middle ground and just how you’re going to think in that gray area, instead of thinking only in black and white.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy is the most common method of treatment, and it involves viewing things as opposites, but differently than the dichotomous thinking. Rather than looking at something and seeing that it is good or bad, dialectical behavior therapy looks at it and says that two opposite things are true at the same time. For example, accomplishing eight projects can be both good (you did make a good start and accomplished a lot) and bad (you didn’t quite hit your goal, so you’ll have to try a little harder next time). By looking at situations and items and being able to see that these opposites are true at the same time, it’s possible to improve your way of life.

Why It Happens

So, where do borderline personality disorder and dichotomous thinking come from? In a lot of people, it occurs simply because they have no other frame of reference. Most of us, as we grow up and get older, start to see that things are not black and white—that there is not always a right and wrong answer—but an answer that lies somewhere in the middle. Those with this disorder, at least most frequently, seem to have never developed that understanding.

Because they may have never learned about a gray area or how it could affect them, they don’t know how to see it or how to understand it for themselves. They’ve never learned how to cope with something that doesn’t fit into one of those two boxes, and so they disregard anything that doesn’t. By working with them to develop these skills and to advance their understanding of the world around them, it’s possible to help them overcome some of the symptoms of the disorder and, eventually, work through it completely.

Finding A Professional

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There are an increasingly large number of studies examining the effects of online therapy on an array of mental health issues, including borderline personality disorder. In one report, published in Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotional Dysregulation, researchers studied the applications for smartphones when treating BPD. Researchers noted the treatment gap that exists when dealing with borderline personality disorder, showing that online therapy platforms can bridge that treatment gap by providing remote access to useful tools that can help reinforce important concepts, and better manage symptoms of BPD.

As mentioned above, online therapy platforms are valuable when helping individuals manage symptoms related to dichotomous thinking. With BetterHelp, you’ll have the ability to connect with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home. Also, you can use the BetterHelp app to reach out to your therapist at any time. If you have concerns, need to ask a question, or simply want to chat, you can message your licensed counselor, and they will get back to you as soon as possible. The qualified professionals at BetterHelp have guided thousands on the journey to better mental help. Read below for counselor reviews, from those who have sought help in the past.

Counselor Reviews

"Wanda made me feel comfortable within minutes of speaking to her. She lifted the weights off my shoulders and helped me see the bigger picture of my issues and gave me practical solutions to my problems."

"If you hate therapy - Steve is the guy for you!!! I was anxious about starting therapy again, I have a hard time buying I to hippie dippie “positive energy” and “mindfulness” and all that. I’m just a really black and white person and I’m a terrible therapy patient. However, Steve made me feel comfortable right away, he listened thoughtfully to why I was pursuing therapy and offered me suggestions and education on what he thought might be going on. He spent extra time talking to me to get to know me even though I’m sure I was keeping him from other work he could be doing. He is really kind, professional, and has a lot of experience with all kinds of patients. I haven’t found a therapist I’ve clicked with as well as Steve in several years. I love his logical approach to solutions and that he explains how one issue may be a symptom of another deeper issue. He is a great therapist, he’s very reasonable and logical-minded and doesn’t make you feel like you need to take up candle lighting and rain dancing to cure yourself like some other therapists do. Really looking forward to continue working with Steve."

Conclusion

Finding someone that can help you with this process is much easier than you might think. That’s because there are professionals out there, all over, who you can talk to, and ways to be matched with someone that is a trained expert in addressing your concerns. With the right help, you can be on your way to better understanding dichotomous thinking, and how it affects you.


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