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The Dangers of Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous thinking (often called black and white thinking, or all or nothing thinking) is a form of cognitive distortion.

Cognitive distortions are thought styles we hold that make mental health symptoms worse (even if we think they are helping).

Dichotomous thinking happens when we believe things in life are either one way or another.

Some examples of dichotomous thinking include:

  • “I got a bad grade on my exam, so I am stupid.”
  • “If I don’t succeed right away, I am failure.”
  • “If my relationship is not perfect, it is unhealthy.”
  • “My partner is not physically abusive, so they are not abusive.”
  • “If I am not always good, I am bad.”
  • “My boss gave me critical feedback, so I am not good at my job.”
  • “My friend yelled at me, so they are not a good friend.”

Why do People Think in Dichotomies?

People tend to think in dichotomies when they are people who struggle with perfectionism, anxiety, depression, who have experienced trauma, and border line personality disorder.

The bottom line is that people who think in dichotomies believe that things are either good or bad, successes or failures, one way or another.

When we look at the world so rigidly, we begin to feel overwhelmed and often stuck.

Dichotomous Thinking Implications

When we view the world in dichotomies, it can have negative implications on our wellbeing.

Dichotomous thinking can lead to internal conflicts, stress, agitation, and hopelessness. All of which can lead to things like:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Burnout
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship conflicts.

Dichotomous Thinking Strategies

Dichotomous thinking can become difficult to both manage and overcome, especially if it feels natural.

On the next slide, there will be some tips and strategies for managing dichotomous thinking. The most important thing to recognize is that very few things in life and in this world are either one way or another.

Some strategies that are helpful at overcoming dichotomous thinking include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
    • Cognitive challenging
    • Cognitive reframing
    • Neutral/balanced thinking
    • Thought records (identified and Labeled thoughts and emotions)
  • Journaling exercises and prompts
    • Self-esteem
    • Self-compassion
    • Self love
  • Breaks, pauses, and rest

This page is part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.


While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.