Everything You Need To Know About Polarized Thinking

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Are you living in a world where everything is black and white? Everything is either good or bad, and there is no in-between? If you are thinking this way, you may be experiencing something called polarized thinking. Polarized thinking is a cognitive distortion that makes everything feel extreme. 

As a Colorado Springs behavioral health center, A Cognitive Connection focuses on helping individuals with brain-related and behavioral needs find a more balanced life. We combine technology, therapy, and a multi-sensory approach to help you find a meaningful and lasting solution to the problem at hand. Now, let’s dig deeper into the causes, symptoms, and impacts of polarized thinking. 

What is Polarized Thinking?

Polarized thinking is a cognitive distortion that tends to occur when individuals view the world in black-and-white terms, without any shades of gray in between. It can also be referred to as all-or-nothing thinking or black-and-white thinking.

This type of thinking often leads to rigid opinions and judgments, where individuals believe something is either right or wrong, good or bad, without considering any other alternatives or perspectives. When polarized thinking takes hold, people view the world through a narrow lens that limits their ability to see the complexity and nuances of situations or issues.

This can lead to conflict, misunderstanding, and in extreme cases, contribute to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and attitudes.

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What Causes All-or-Nothing Thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking is a common symptom for individuals who suffer from anxiety-related disorders, such as depressive disorders.  A 2017 study in Stress & Health linked life adversity in childhood to the development of cognitive distortions, like all-or-nothing thinking. When someone has experienced trauma or difficult situations in the past, they’re more likely to interpret neutral situations in a negative light.
While polarized thinking may be a sign of a more serious problem, it is common for people to think this way when they are under stress.

Impact of Polarized Thinking

Depending on the root cause of polarized thinking, its impact on your daily life will be different. In many cases, relationships are greatly affected by this type of black-and-white thinking. When you use all-or-nothing thinking during a conflict, you are more likely to misunderstand the other person and not leave room for compromise. 

Romantic relationships may suffer from polarized thinking if you deem your partner a “bad person” due to a poor decision or mistake. Other types of relationships can suffer from this way of thinking as well, including workplace relationships and friendships.

Unfortunately, with this thought pattern, we tend to move people into different categories based on one event rather than looking at the whole picture.

Examples of Polarized Thinking

Let’s review a few more examples of polarized thinking to explore how it can impact daily life:

  • You encounter a setback, such as not meeting a goal or feeling overwhelmed by certain tasks, so you feel like a total failure. This type of thinking ignores the successes and progress made along the way and overlooks alternative solutions that could be applied to tackle the problem.
  • You see another person as always wrong, mean, or selfish without considering any situational factors, lifestyle differences, or personal situations that may be influencing their decisions. This often happens in politics and leads to intense conflict between the two sides without ever finding a middle ground.
  • You were passed over for a promotion at work, and now you think your job is on-the-line. This ignores the possibility that you are doing well in your role, but someone else was a better fit for the promotion.

How to Stop All-or-Nothing Thinking

When all-or-nothing thinking takes place, reality is nowhere to be found. This way of thinking limits your success and ability to moderate emotions. Some steps to help you stop this way of thinking include:

1. Identify potential triggers.

Pay attention to situations or feelings that tend to lead to all-or-nothing thinking. This can help you recognize when the thought pattern is beginning.

2. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness helps you observe your thoughts without judgment and be more present in the moment. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help.

3. Avoid definite descriptors.

Do not allow yourself to use the following words when thinking about a task you completed or an interaction you had: always, never, all, every, everyone, success, failure, good, and bad. Instead, try to find some different, more accurate adjectives.

4. Use the word But.

But is a powerful tool against all-or-nothing thinking. For example, if you are feeling like a failure today, try to acknowledge your successes and reframe the situation by saying, “I had a bad day, but I’ve had lots of good days before.”

5. Do not allow mistakes to define you.

When you make a mistake, do not let it define who you are as a person. For example, if you burn your food while cooking dinner, do not allow yourself to say, “I am a bad cook,” instead, acknowledge that it was a mistake and move on. 

6. Step away from the situation.

Take a few moments to regain control of your emotions and practice deep breathing techniques, if needed.

7. Seek help.

If your all-or-nothing thinking persists, it may be necessary to seek professional help from a mental health expert. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great way to get to the root of your negative thought patterns and change them for the better.

By recognizing and addressing all-or-nothing thinking, you can gain better control of your emotions and develop healthier relationships with others. Understanding the impact of this thought pattern is an important first step in promoting healthier thinking and relationships.

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A Cognitive Connection Can Help You Overcome Polarized Thinking

If you are dealing with polarized thinking and are ready to move into a more balanced life approach, we can help. Our mission is to help you live the life you’ve always wanted by tackling negative patterns of thought and behavior. We will walk beside you with our various treatment options, including behavioral therapy, which has been shown to improve the symptoms of polarized thinking. So contact our team at A Cognitive Connection to begin taking control of your life.

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