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Understanding the Limitations of Either/Or Thinking

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Most of us are familiar with Either/Or thinking, also known as Black-and-White or Binary thinking. It is the type of thinking that drove Inspector Javert’s obsessive quest to bring Jean Valjean to justice for stealing a loaf of bread in the book/movie Les Miserables. When we use Either/Or thinking it helps us make sense of the world and brings us

certainty. Black-and-White thinking tends to simplify life, people, and events. It also leads to absolutes and divides people into us vs. them. And Binary thinking makes it incredibly difficult to hold space in your life for paradox.

Examples of Binary thinking:

  • If I am right, then you are wrong

  • You are either conservative or liberal

  • Women are emotional and men are rational

  • Being rational is better than being emotional (of vice versa)

  • You are either for me or against me

  • If I don’t win, I lose

  • If I don’t get an A on the test, then I’ve failed

  • You’re either in the “in” group or you’re an outsider

Binary thinking leads to absolutes

Binary thinking tends to lead to absolutes, which tends to lead to fundamentalism, authoritarianism, and judgement. But Binary thinking is not all bad (see what I did there? You might have thought I was leading you into a binary thinking trap, “binary thinking is bad, non-binary thinking is good,” but I’m not). There are times and situations in which Binary thinking is useful and helpful. Either/Or thinking is an important place to start teaching children. We teach our children that it is bad to touch the stove top, or that it is wrong to steal. We cannot get into the philosophical intricacies of Les Miserables until their brains are more developed. Binaries of “good and bad” help establish societal rules and allow for law and order to exist. Binary thinking also helps us make quick decisions, which might be needed in certain situations, especially fight or flight situations. However, as we grow up and gain more experience, we can learn to step out of that Black-and-White thinking.

Binary thinking and limiting stories

Recognizing when you’re stuck in Either/Or thinking can be a good indication that you might be trapped in a limiting story. How often do you tell yourself that you need to be the best? And if you’re not the best, then what? Do you put unrealistic expectations on yourself? I have found that when I get stuck in Binary thinking, I can give up before I ever try something new, because if I can’t be the best, then why try?

Here’s a very recent limiting story I’ve been rewriting. I spent most of my life in academia. As my life unfolded, I changed course and decided to become a life coach. But I was venturing into completely new territory, particularly in regards to starting/owning a business. My predominant story was that you were either a businessperson, or you weren’t. And I definitely wasn’t. I knew I could do the coaching, but I knew nothing about starting and running a business And my whole life I always

by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

thought, “I would never want to be a businessperson.” So the story that I wasn’t a businessperson and didn’t want to be one, got in my way. It caused me to do the business-end of coaching under a larger umbrella of “I can’t.” And guess what? That’s a tough way to try something new.

So, I’ve had to change my story from “you’re either a businessperson or you’re not,” to “I’m new to business and I have a lot to learn. I’ll take it one day at a time and eventually I’ll make it.” I still don’t particularly like making mistakes (who does?), but I’m much more accepting of my mistakes than I used to be. Also, I’ve let go of my expectations about running a business. And I’m finding that I can do the business-side of coaching.

Emotional cost of binary thinking

We can use Binary thinking as a type of weapon against others and ourselves. If we get stuck in Either/Or thinking we can end up sabotaging our own happiness. We limit our choices. And if there are only two options, it becomes very easy to judge ourselves (and others). The judgment comes from Either/Or thinking, which creates a place of fear due to a lack of understanding. But the Binary thinking and judgment can take a real toll on one’s emotional health.

Binary thinking was part of what kept me in my depression ( I was taught that if you work hard enough and get good grades, you’ll be happy; since I was depressed, I figured I must not be good enough (how can straight A’s not be enough?). Therefore, I needed to be more. More selfless, more patient, work harder, push myself harder…you get the idea. This is a bit simplified, but I spent a lot of time using Binary thinking to prove to myself I was worthless. It kept me from accepting my imperfections and accepting failure as a part of learning and life.

Slowly, I began to identify how I was trapped in Either/Or thinking and started to adopt a Yes/And perspective. I began to see that yes, I experience both happiness and sorrow, sometimes despite what I’m doing. Yes, I can be both wise and foolish. Yes, I am sometimes a good mother and sometimes a bad mother.

And as I’ve grown into the Both/And (Yes/And) thinking, I even find myself moving away from calling things good or bad. I’m learning non-judgment. So, instead of thinking about being a good or bad mother, I recognize that there are some things I do well and other things I need to work on. And most importantly, I have learned that in my efforts, I am enough.

Embracing Both/And

Embracing Both/And thinking has taken me into the space of uncertainty. I feel like I “know” less than I ever have, but I’m happy being in that space. Uncertainty can lead to feeling like I’m out of control, but ironically, embracing the uncertainty has allowed me to take back my own personal authority and I feel like I have more control in my life (a great example of paradox). And I’m realizing that I don’t need another person’s validation to tell me if I’m good enough. Embracing the Both/And thinking has taught me to give myself, and others, more grace and compassion.

There are plenty of times I still get stuck in Either/Or thinking, and I don’t even notice it! I always get a good laugh when a friend says to me “Kim, you’re looking at this through a binary lens. Are there other possibilities?” Moving to Yes/And thinking takes practice and it is like peeling back layers of an onion. As you shed the Either/Or thinking in one area, you’ll find it crop up in another. I think it is human nature to want things to be Either/Or, to be simple. But it also limits our personal growth and development.

by K8 on Unsplash

So, I challenge you to find areas in your life where you might be telling yourself a limiting story using either/or thinking. Please share your thoughts in the comments section and we can learn from each other!

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