Dichotomous Thinking and Borderline Personality Disorder

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Dichotomous thinking, also known as "black or white thinking," is a symptom of many psychiatric conditions and personality disorders, including borderline personality disorder (BPD). Dichotomous thinking contributes to interpersonal problems and to emotional and behavioral instability. 

Characteristics of Dichotomous Thinking

Many people experience dichotomous thinking sometimes, but it can be a problem when extreme conclusions about yourself, other people, or circumstances, interfere with your emotional stability, relationships, and decisions. If most of your thoughts break down to black or white, good or bad, and all or nothing, then it is possible that you have a strong tendency towards dichotomous thinking.

This extreme thinking can cause serious overreactions or emotional responses and may result in significant consequences if you tend to behave impulsively in response to your extreme feelings. Whether it's breaking off a relationship or poor work performance, dichotomous thinking can affect your quality of life.

Dichotomous Thinking and Borderline Personality Disorder

BPD is a condition that is challenging to live with. BPD is often difficult to diagnose because people who have it may experience extreme mood swings and erratic behavior, but generally cannot see themselves as having a problem, and instead view others as the problem. People with BPD are more likely to display dichotomous thinking than people who do not have BPD. 

Examples of Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous thinking can cause conflicts and agitation, disrupting your own inner sense of peace and disrupting peace between yourself and others. If you have BPD, you may experience dichotomous thinking without even realizing it. 

For example, you might frequently flip-flop between seeing yourself as a remarkable success or a major failure based on the praise or criticism of others. 

A person with dichotomous thinking may meet a new coworker at work. In the beginning, the coworker is viewed as amazing, perfect, and better than any other coworker or friend ever encountered before. People with dichotomous thinking tend to have favorites and to believe that everything about a favorite person or thing is superior to others. However, as time goes on, someone with dichotomous thinking may suddenly go to the opposite extreme. If ignored by the coworker, or if the coworker behaves in a disappointing way, a person with dichotomous thinking may lose respect for or hate this formerly favorite coworker, unable to sustain relationships that are not distinctly "love" or "hate". This can lead to being easily manipulated by those who are viewed as "good" or to abrupt breakups in friendships and romantic relationships. 

In some instances, dichotomous thinking can result in financial problems. Impulsive purchases and a lack of balanced judgment at work and in personal life can have serious consequences. 

Treatment of Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous thinking and BPD can be very detrimental, holding you back from living a rich, full life. There are treatments for both conditions. If you have symptoms, it is recommended that you seek out a healthcare professional who is trained and experienced in treating borderline personality disorder. 

During your therapy sessions, your therapist or psychologist may ask you to discuss examples of your daily routine and discuss different perspectives. If you often think in extremes, your therapist can help you identify the middle ground, introducing you to a new, more balanced way of thought. As you progress, you will learn to consider your own assumptions by asking yourself the following questions before you allow your thoughts to upset you:

  • Is there evidence that supports my thoughts?
  • Am I considering all angles, or am I leaving things out?
  • Could your assumption be challenged by someone else? How?
  • Does everyone else see it this way?
  • Am I being fair to others in making this opinion?

By taking a step back, you can build the skills necessary to learn to form a more realistic perception of your relationships and your environment.

If you recognize that you have a tendency to dichotomous thinking, it is also important to avoid acting on your extreme thoughts or making sudden decisions. You might want to write things down or discuss things with a trusted friend or therapist. These steps can give you time to consider your decisions and to get feedback from a neutral source before you take action that could cause harm to your relationships or your finances. 

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