Understanding Dichotomous Thinking And What It Means For You

By Michael Arangua

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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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 found as part of 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.

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.

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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 did well, punishes you. 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 has a relatively simple method of treatment.

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 suffering from this disorder likely has difficulty making plans for themselves and their lives, has problems with suicide risk and self-injury and may have extreme anger, depression or anxiety. They can experience distortions in their thoughts and feelings as well as their sense of themselves, which leads them to feel empty, misunderstood, and mistreated.

People with BPD are looking for the same acceptance and care as everyone else, but the thinking patterns that underly it has convinced them they likely 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

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 will help because a professional will start looking at the things you're doing and saying that may be interfering with your treatment process. They'll also be able to look at a whole lot more than just the dichotomous thinking and at the borderline personality disorder. That way, they'll be able to help you overcome all the symptoms and problems 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.

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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 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.

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Because they 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 the disorder completely.

Finding a Professional

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 online therapy you can use text any time of the day to talk with a licensed therapist, and schedule video or call sessions to talk with your therapist as much as you want to during the week. You can attend therapy from the comfort of your home or even while you travel from your favorite electronic device.


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