top of page

Red or Blue?: The Violence of Dichotomous Thinking

We are entering an election year. I confess, I stepped into 2024 with a feeling of dread. For years now, I’ve had clients citing stress over politics as a major contributing factor to mental health distress, in large part due to how poisonous, divisive, fear-mongering, and rhetorically violent the past few presidential elections became. As I prepare to support my clients in managing their mental health through our upcoming presidential election—and as I think about how to protect my own mental health, too—I find myself honing in on dichotomous thinking as the primary weapon destroying our nation and our psyches when it comes to politics. And honestly, it’s not just politics; dichotomous thinking is also a danger to our theology, relationships, communication, values formation, and our capacity for self-compassion.



Not a week goes by in my office where I don’t discuss dichotomous thinking. But what do I mean by that term?

 


Dichotomous thinking is any thought process that leaves us with only two options, particularly when one option is good and the other option is bad. It’s thinking based on binaries—right or wrong, in or out, true or false, safe or dangerous. The sneaky part about dichotomous thinking is that it is developmentally appropriate at a certain stage of life—it’s how children learn to navigate life, follow the rules, and make sense of the world—but it becomes problematic when we never progress beyond it. When we take childlike thinking into the adult world of nuance, paradox, and shades of gray—when we only have the tools for “either/or” problem-solving in situations that require a “both/and” approach—we run into tremendous difficulty.

 


According to developmental theorists like Piaget and Kohlberg, we are meant to start moving beyond dichotomous thinking when we enter adolescence. But the most cursory examination of how the majority of Americans interact with complex ideas such as politics and religion reveals that vast swaths of the adult population still function primarily with dichotomous thinking. Why does this form of thinking hold such power over us long into adulthood, even while it damages relationships, limits our choices, and inflicts harm on those we sort into categories different from the ones we inhabit?

 


I believe at least part of the answer is that the most basic decision-making function of our brain is actually a dichotomy. When presented with a stimulus, our brain’s first task is to decide whether we ought to approach the source of this stimulus or avoid it. The approach/avoid sorting mechanism has great evolutionary advantage in keeping us safe, helping us avoid things that could kill us (predators or poisonous plants) and allowing us to approach things that keep us alive (clean water or the safety of the tribe). Dichotomous thinking is a foundational survival process—but that is also part of the problem. As long as we are functioning out of dichotomous thinking, we never get to move beyond survival; it keeps us locked in survival mode, where our fight-or-flight system makes all the decisions and our values and higher principles never even get a say.

 


But if you want to do more than survive in life—if you want to thrive, enjoy life, cultivate meaningful connections, and give something of value back to society—then you have to move beyond dichotomous thinking.

 


There are other reasons, though, for why many of us never develop the ability to think beyond simple binaries and closed dichotomies. Many of us have never seen anything else modeled to us; we can’t even conceptualize what nuanced, complex thinking would look like, because few of the role models, authority figures, or caregivers in our life have demonstrated it—and we’re certainly not seeing it in the social media or news we consume. Furthermore, if the communities to which we belong are based on an in-or-out, for-us-or-against-us model, moving beyond dichotomous thinking can be terrifying; it threatens our basic sense of belonging. This triggers all kinds of fears in our herd-oriented brains that have been conditioned over millennia to associate belonging to a tribe as necessary for survival. And when our education systems are structured around teaching us what to think rather than teaching us how to think, when all we get is content devoid of process, or information without context, our cognitive development stalls out at immature stages.

 


The final reason for perpetual dichotomous thinking is trauma. Many trauma survivors get stuck in dichotomous thinking—just one of many signs that they are unable to feel safe enough to leave survival mode behind. Everything still feels like a life-or-death approach/avoid scenario. As I’ve gained more experience working with survivors of complex trauma, I’ve seen over and over again that part of the process of healing is learning how to move beyond dichotomous thinking. It’s only when we step out of those rigid, confining binaries that we are able to view ourselves as both damaged and triumphant, to view our perpetrators as unjustifiably wrong in their actions but also damaged humans worthy of compassion, to view forgiveness not as a free pass that ignores the harm done but as a step toward restoration.

 


The end result of all of these reasons—the approach/avoid mechanism, lack of role models, our need to belong, stunted cognitive development, and trauma—is that we never move past dichotomous thinking or the harm that it causes. The root of the word dichotomy gives us a lot of insight into its effects: di- means “two” or “division into two parts,” and -otomy comes from the Greek verb “to cut,” showing up in medical words like thoracotomy (cutting open the ribs to see inside the chest) and lobotomy (cutting into or destroying the prefrontal cortex). The word dichotomy is fundamentally a violent word, indicating an abrupt and bloody separation of a whole into two parts.

 


Let’s look at some examples of dichotomous thinking and see if you can identify the violence it causes:

 


  • Gender: “Gender is a binary, and male and female are opposites. Men are logical and women are emotional; men are meant to pursue and provide, while women are meant to respond and nurture.”

  • Politics: “If you’re for gun control, you’re against freedom; if you support gun rights, you must not care about kids getting shot in schools.”

  • Communication: “To resolve conflict, we have to figure out which one of us is right and which one of us is wrong.”

  • Relationship to Self: “If I’m not perfect, I’m bad, and unworthy of love or belonging.”

  • Relationship to Others: “I can’t set a boundary that will make someone else upset, because that would be bad; if someone sets a boundary that upsets me, it’s bad.”

  • Personal Values: “If you have sex with a lot of people, you’re promiscuous; if you don’t have sex with a lot of people, you’re prudish.”

 


What types of harm did you see in these examples? Hopefully, you caught onto the disconnection; the othering; the staying trapped in survival mode; the stagnation and stalled problem-solving; the chronic misunderstanding; the potential for violence, destruction, and dehumanization; the lack of personal accountability; and the scarcity mindset that says “only one of us can win,” or “only one of us can have our needs met.”

 


(At the end of this post, I give two examples of identifying the harm caused by dichotomous thinking. Try your hand at it first, and then take a look.)

 


So if we want to progress beyond dichotomous thinking, what are our options?

 


I’m well aware of the irony in naming a type of thinking that is the opposite of dichotomous thinking. But I think a good place to start is with the concept of a non-dual mindset. Father Richard Rohr explores this beautifully in his writings on contemplative spirituality, but the heart of a non-dual mindset is humility and openness. A non-dual mindset goes deeper than “thinking on a spectrum” (which is just binaries with a gradient in between). In contrast to the cutting or dividing process of dichotomous thinking, a non-dual mindset focuses on unifying connections. Go back to the examples above, and see if you can pick out some unifying principles for each one and formulate an alternative perspective that incorporates both sides. Read through each one, try to approach it with a non-dual mindset, and see what possibilities open up. Practice flexible thinking; practice challenging your default assumptions; practice finding a third path forward. Practice holding two truths at the same time.

 


And by the way, I would love to hear what you come up with. Feel free to email me your thoughts at karyn@karynreschcounseling.com.

 


Parenting influencer Dr. Becky, who hosts one of my favorite Instagram accounts, talks about the idea of “holding two truths at the same time.” In her work, the ability to hold two truths at the same time allows parents to view their children as good in the midst of difficult behavior, while also viewing themselves as good in the midst of imperfect parenting choices. It saves parents from feeling like everyday situations pit them against their children, where only one of them is good and the other, by default, is bad. Holding two truths at the same time leaves room for empathy, fosters connection, and enhances secure attachment.

 


Another word for the practice of holding two truths at the same time is paradox. James Fowler, the author of a beautiful and nuanced stage theory of spiritual development (check out his book Stages of Faith, 1981) highlights the centrality of paradox in his Stage 5 “Conjunctive Faith.” After Stage 3, characterized by external religious conventions, in-group belonging, and conforming to authority, and Stage 4, characterized by doubts and demythologizing, reactivity against authority, and separation from Stage 3 communities based on strong “either/or” dichotomies, Stage 5 allows a person to harmonize dichotomies and accept mystery in their faith and thinking.

 


“Stage 5 accepts as axiomatic that truth is more multidimensional and organically interdependent than most theories or accounts of truth can grasp.” (pg. 186)

 

“Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. It generates and maintains vulnerability to the truths of those who are ‘other.’ …The new strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic imagination—a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial, and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” (pg. 198)

 


Take, for example, the ancient question, “Is God all-powerful or is God all-loving?” Humans have been asking this for millennia as we grapple with the reality of suffering. Stage 3 and Stage 4 faith assumes that love and power are opposites, or at least mutually exclusive—that somehow the presence of suffering means love and power must be out of balance on the cosmic level. These faith stages force us to choose one or the other to make sense of our experience. Stage 5 faith, on the other hand, dares to question the assumption that we know for a fact exactly how a being with perfect love or absolute power would operate. Stage 5 faith accepts that our biases, limitations, experiences, traumas, and mortality impact our ability to comprehend perfect love and absolute power, and leaves room for two things to be true at the same time.

 


Spiritual maturity, in any religious tradition, can only be reached by the rigorous road of a non-dual mindset.



I want to leave you with the image of the Yin-Yang symbol. What I love about this image is that the two opposing forces curve around each other, almost embracing one another, and form a unified whole, a circle that has no sides or corners. And embedded in the heart of the Yin is a core of the Yang, while the Yang holds a piece of the Yin. They rely on each other, incorporate each other, and are incomplete without each other.

 


To grow as individuals—and to heal as a society—we need to start identifying our dichotomous thinking when it crops up. We need to challenge our dichotomies, and identify the fears that keep us locked in their grasp. We need to cultivate—in Fowler’s words—a vulnerability to the truths of those who are “other.” I would love to live in the kind of nation that folks with a non-dual mindset could build.

 

 

 ----------

 


Examples of identifying the violence done by dichotomous thinking:

 

  • Gender:

    • Besides the harm that this does to queer, trans, and non-binary people, it also upholds patriarchy as a destructive force that cripples men, oppresses those who are not men, and promotes a culture of domination rather than connection. It invalidates and silences those of us who don’t fit the mold. Perhaps most destructively—since we have a hard time conceiving of opposites without one being “better”—it privileges logical reasoning and hierarchical values and degrades emotional reasoning and connection-based values (neither of which are actually gendered to begin with). The host of global-scale problems and moral impasses to which this leads is another blog post for another day.

  • Gun Violence:

    • We will never solve this crucial and complicated issue if we can only see it in a harsh binary that pits us against each other and keeps us from hearing one another’s pain. The reality is, all of us want our kids to be safe at school; the reality is, all of us are choosing our position on gun control out of fear being harmed by someone else with a gun. Maintaining this reductionistic binary is literally killing us, as all our energy goes toward fighting each other and the real problem goes unsolved.

1 Comment


Really appreciate your take, Karyn! The world is a little better thanks to you and your diligent love of compassionate understanding. 😊

Like
bottom of page