Cognitive Distortion: Dichotomous Thinking
The Burden of the Dichotomous Thinker & Disordered Personality
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 the likelihood is that it is not working well for you.
In conversations I have with people who have experienced narcissistic abuse, there is often confusion surrounding the perpetrator who may have idolized them at one moment and suddenly devalued and discarded them the next. This dichotomy in thought and behavior demonstrates a lack of object constancy, a psychodynamic construct related to object permanence. Object constancy confers an appreciation for caregivers and relations in spite of distance or conflict.
Dichotomous thinking (aka all-or-nothing thinking) is a hallmark of cognitive distortion and a feature of personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. Dialectical thinking, which considers the duality in examining life events, allows us to see the good and bad in others and similarly appreciate dualism in our experiences.
For those who view life from a dichotomous perspective, it is all too easy to develop a negative bias towards others, life events, and even oneself. This inability to appreciate the ‘in between’ leads to cognitive distortion and ultimately dysfunction in our personal and professional lives.
While polarization and ‘splitting’ protect the fragile ego of the developmentally traumatized from emotional and psychological insult, dichotomous thinking and a lack of object constancy are largely maladaptive for life and work. Rigid all-or-none thought patterns preclude 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 makes relating to others very challenging.
To the pathological narcissist, someone who is out of sight is often out of mind. To someone afflicted with borderline personality disorder, someone who is out of sight (literally or figuratively) often leads to the misperception of abandonment. Those afflicted with either narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder may experience splitting at a young age and consequently lack object constancy. 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 disorder.
Jordan was interim executive director of a mental health advocacy nonprofit and hosts Scapegoat Strength, a site dedicated to understanding familial and organizational dysfunction.