Cognitive Distortion: Dichotomous Thinking
The Burden of the Dichotomous Thinker & Disordered Personality
By Dr. Jordan Schaul | Scapegoat Strength | October 5, 2021
Have you ever been ‘love bombed’ and then thrown off the ‘pedestal’ by a friend, partner, or colleague? Have you had a bad week and thought you couldn’t do anything right? Have you blamed someone else for doing everything wrong? If these behaviors and experiences reflect a pattern, you may have a tendency to think dichotomously and this can create challenges for you and those around you.
In conversations I have with people who have experienced narcissistic abuse, there is often confusion surrounding the perpetrator who may idolize others at one moment and suddenly devalue and discard them the next. This dichotomy in thought and behavior demonstrates a lack of understanding of object constancy, a developmental milestone related to object permanence that influences the perceptions of others in spite of distance or occasional conflict.
Dichotomous thinking (aka all-or-nothing thinking) is a hallmark of cognitive distortion and a feature of personality pathologies, including narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. Dialectical thinking, which considers duality when it comes to examining life events, allows us to see the good and bad in others and similarly appreciate dualism in our life experiences.
For those who view life through a dichotomous lens, it is all too easy to develop a negative bias towards others, life events, and even oneself. This challenge in appreciating the ‘in between’ leads to cognitive distortions and ultimately can create dysfunction in our personal and professional lives.
While polarization and ‘splitting’ protect the fragile ego of the young and developmentally traumatized from emotional and psychological insult, dichotomous thinking and a lack of object constancy are largely maladaptive for interrelating with other people. Rigid all-or-none thought patterns preclude us from operating in a ‘grey’ zone, which accommodates diffuseness and fluidity in our view of the world. Persistent patterns of thinking in ‘black and white’ terms without regard for nuance and dialectal perspectives of the ‘grey’ zone can make relating to others very challenging.
To the pathological narcissist, someone out of sight is often perceived as out of mind. Someone afflicted with borderline personality traits may erroneously feel abandoned by someone who is out of sight (literally or figuratively). Those afflicted with maladaptive personalities can experience splitting at a young age and consequently fail to develop an understanding of object constancy as an adult. In essence, the cognitive distortion that they may present with is the perception that when someone is not good, they are all bad. This dichotomy is bound to lead to conflict in relating to others.
One of the treatment modalities for helping individuals develop object constancy is dialectical behavior therapy, a form of cognitive behavior therapy that has proven beneficial to individuals afflicted with borderline personality traits.
Jordan hosts Scapegoat Strength, a site dedicated to understanding familial and organizational dysfunction.