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Monday Metacognition #2

Today's term is Dichotomous Thinking.  The tendency to see things from an "all or none," "black or white" perspective.  It's either this or it's that, there's nothing really in between.

I think we can all see this on the grand stage of politics or other hot-topic issues that we'll refrain from bringing here.  I'm right, you're wrong, there's no room for discussion.  Period.  We can also see how this way of thinking can cause a lot of problems, especially when we use it to evaluate ourselves.

Here's an example:

Shannon was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis this past summer.  Her doctor told her that her case was relatively mild and that by following the treatment plan of daily medications, stress reduction and watching her diet she would be able to keep her symptoms under control.  Shannon is highly motivated to stay well so she made sure to follow her doctor's recommendations to the T.  She took her medication, began exercising to reduce her stress and cut high fat foods from her diet since these triggered her UC symptoms.  The treatment worked and her UC seemed to be in remission.  One weekend she went out of town with some friends and forgot to pack her medication.  Since she was feeling well, she didn't think it was that big of a deal.  She also "cheated" on her diet and had hot wings and beer for dinner on Saturday.  When she got home she experienced some abdominal pain and had to use the bathroom several times.  This lasted for a few days, even though she started taking her medication again and went back to a healthy diet.

Shannon thought to herself, "I really screwed up and now my UC is flaring.  I've completely blown my treatment."

The dichotomous trap here is Shannon either follows her treatment plan perfectly or she's failing.  Rather than place herself somewhere in between, she has chosen an extreme view of her situation.

There are several follow-up thoughts that she could have that take her down very different emotional paths.

"I'm never going to get my UC under control." (Catastrophic thinking)


"I just screwed up, it'll be fine once I get back into my routine." (Alternative, "Grey area" explanation)

So how do we identify when we're doing this to ourselves?  Look for use of exaggerated words in your thinking. Is there a less-extreme way to interpret the situation, like in Shannon's case?  Jot these down and evaluate them against your original thought.

Next week:  Personalization

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