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Binary Thinking...Yes or No?

What is binary thinking?

Binary thinking is often described as 'black and white' thinking, or 'all or nothing' thinking. It is a type of distorted or dysfunctional thinking which is characterised by a person believing that there are only two choices/options or outcomes. When faced with a decision to make, binary thinkers see a dilemma which must be resolved using one alternative or the other. This way of thinking is a result of our brain’s tendency to narrow or simplify our thinking when we’re feeling anxious or under pressure. Human nature has always tried to reduce the world to binary states: good and evil, friend or enemy, and we can trace back this tendency to the basic fight or flight response; being able to make a quick decision when faced with a potential danger or threat has historically been essential for survival.

The psychological term for binary thinking is “splitting.” In its extreme form, splitting can be a symptom of mental illness like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) but more commonly is a type of thinking that we can all fall into the trap of.

What is the impact of binary thinking?

When the brain reacts in a binary way, it leads to quick, irrational decisions and actions; when a dialogue is engaged between the emotional and rational parts of the brain, people come to believe that reality is defined by two mutually exclusive categories.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how the real world works. There is more often than not a middle ground, a grey area, a third option. When you look at successful people, you'll find that few of their decisions have been black and white and obviously safe options.

In a fast paced world, if you think you have clear cut answers about the future you could be cutting off your ability to see what’s actually happening and respond accordingly, and you may end up feeling trapped by an illusory either/or option.

Black and white thinking can negatively impact your relationships...

Your partner is the most wonderful person in the world... until they’re the worst. You love your best friend and then you hate them...This cycle of opposing extremes can be incredibly stressful for any relationship. Black and white thinking can impact on people's feeling of comfort with each other, can chip away at intimacy and trust and prevent a deeper bond forming which is based on acceptance. By viewing a loved one as either all good or all bad, you don't see them for what they really are: a normal, imperfect human being, just like everyone else.

If you are a binary thinker you are more likely to see yourself as either a 'bad person' or a 'good person.' In reality, most people are somewhere in between, having both some good qualities and some not so good. When you think in black and white terms, however, you risk being either overly self-critical or unable or unwilling to see your faults.

Black and white thinking can make you more sensitive to others people's opinions and make it difficult to accept criticism/constructive feedback. That can stifle personal growth and self-compassion.

Binary thinking can hold you back from success...

Like in other aspects of life, you will undoubtedly have good days and bad days at work, and probably many more that fall somewhere in between. If you think in binary terms you're more likely to internalize every failure or develop an unrealistic expectation of success. Black and white thinking in our professional lives can lead us to abandon a project we are working on, as we feel it is inevitably doomed to fail.

Why are there so many binary thinkers?

Binary thinking feels safe. It creates a world where things are black or white. Something is happening or it's not happening, or is either good or bad. In the binary world things happen sequentially in a linear, orderly fashion.

Binary thinking requires less brain power than more complex forms of thinking so it actually helps us to preserve energy (think fight or flight), and we are drawn to the clarity of a world that appears to follow a straight line. We feel happier if there’s a plan to follow, and we find comfort in knowing that if we stick to it, everything will be ok.

The way that news and stories are shared in the media and the sensationalist nature of headlines often encourage binary thinking e.g.

'Mac Vs PC: Which is faster?'

'It's my deal or no Brexit!'

Think about how many films and books are based on the concept of the battle between good and evil/right and wrong e.g. 'War and Peace,' 'Robin Hood' and 'Guardians of the Galaxy' to name a few.

Binary options help us to feel that we are asseting our identities, whether that’s by labelling someone else or something as 'good' or 'bad,' or simply by making assumptions.

What are the benefits of directional thinking?

Directional thinking or 'spectrum' thinking is the opposite of binary thinking. It allows you to consider many different options, alternatives and possibilities. Directional thinking helps us to explore the middle ground. This way of thinking allows you to experience more of the richness and depth of our lives and the environment around us.

Allowing ourselves to enter into uncertainty is, paradoxically, a way to see more clearly: not in black and white or even grey, but in a complex variety of all the colours in the rainbow.

When we acknowledge that every aspect of life can be complex and requires more than an either or approach, we enable ourselves to learn and grow toward success.

How can I change from a binary thinker to a more directional thinker?

If you think that you have a tendency towards binary thinking, e.g. you think there is only option A or option B, first try to refrain from making a snap decision or acting on your thoughts straight away. Allow yourself to become consciously aware of what is happening, then you can choose to think about things in a different way...Ask yourself the following questions:

Is there any evidence that supports my thoughts?

Am I considering all angles/perspectives or am I leaving something out?

Could my assumption be challenged by someone else? if so, how?

Does everyone else see things this way?

What other options are there available?

Am I being fair to others in forming this opinion?

Consider writing down your thoughts or talking them through with a friend or therapist. This will give you time to better assess your decisions and get feedback from a more neutral source before you act in a way that might have an undesirable outcome.

Therapy can help you to identify the middle ground, the grey areas, and to access a new, more balanced way of thinking.

Directional thinking actually requires greater emotional intelligence and this is something that could be developed in a counselling relationship.

Therapy can also help you learn to feel more comfortable with not having an answer, to stop looking for a beginning or an end and to let go of rigid, inflexible ideas and boundaries.


"Those with the most clarity are the best at dealing with ambiguity."

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