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The Mental Trap That Makes You Overreact to Setbacks

How to overcome what psychologists call “dichotomous thinking”

Melody Wilding, LMSW
Mar 1 · 4 min read
Credit: iMrSquid/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty

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We all know people who greet life’s challenges with grit and grace. People who are calm and even-keeled under pressure, approaching worries, fears, and even injustice with magnanimity.

I have never been one of those people. As a classic overachiever, I’ve always had a tendency to equate my self-worth with external validation. At times, it has come in handy, feeding my ambitious streak by pushing me to work harder. But constantly living for the next gold star also led me to process each minor setback like a major disaster, filling my brain with dramatic thoughts: I couldn’t do anything right. Everyone hated me. I was doomed to fail.

Maybe you can relate to this kind of unwitting overreaction. It happens when one fight with a friend leaves you convinced that the two of you are over for good, or when your partner does something hurtful enough to make you believe, just temporarily, that you truly hate their guts.

We even see it in pop culture and politics — worlds where we’re often quick to categorize people as good or bad, worthy of admiration or disdain, without fully understanding their motives or the fuller picture. These reactive cycles of love/hate, yes/no, up/down, and good/bad can be stressful at best and irreparably damaging to relationships at worst.

The tendency to think in extremes is known in psychology as dichotomous thinking, or black-and-white thinking, a common mental error that can distort your perception of reality. When you’re in the grips of dichotomous thinking, there’s no room for nuance. You begin seeing the world in terms of all or nothing, fixating on how things “should be” or “must be” to the point that you render yourself inflexible to change.

Ask yourself: What objective evidence supports this? How would someone else view this situation?

Everyone struggles with dichotomous thinking from time to time. We’re wired to crave order, and breaking things down into basic categories helps your mind process the world more efficiently, if not necessarily accurately. Evolutionarily speaking, this reductionist thinking was crucial, conserving precious energy and keeping our ancestors attuned to potential threats in the environment. But in modern times, this automatic response can get you into trouble. When you think in black-and-white terms, you risk misconstruing people’s intentions or blocking yourself from opportunities.

In fact, research has shown that this type of binary thought pattern can contribute to harmful perfectionism and low self-worth and can lead you to misunderstand other people’s emotions. Life is complex and ambiguous, and staying happy and sane demands an appreciation of its subtleties. Here’s how to change your thoughts to be a little more realistic and a little less extreme.

Pay attention to your thought patterns

The first step to reducing dichotomous thinking is to acknowledge when you’re falling into its trap. Take note of when you catch yourself speaking in absolutes — phrases like “this always happens” or “it never works out.” Also pay attention to when your thoughts turn negative, and try to counteract them by giving your experience a realism rating. For instance, if you’re convinced that a presentation you just gave was a disaster, take deep breaths and rate your performance on a scale of zero to 100. It probably wasn’t a 100, but it’s equally unlikely that it was a zero — not perfect, but not all bad, either.

Calm your body

When you’re in the throes of dichotomous thinking, your brain jumps into overdrive to protect you from perceived threats. Even though you’re not really in danger, your body reacts by unleashing chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, which amp up your anxiety, while functions like focus, decision-making, and self-control take a hit.

A simple way to stabilize your physical state when you feel yourself overreacting is with a mindfulness skill called grounding, which helps you deescalate your emotional reactions and physically calm your nervous system. One of my favorite grounding exercises is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which requires you to engage your senses one at a time: Identify five things you can see, four sounds, three physical sensations, two smells, and one taste that you’re experiencing in the moment. You can also try methods like box breathing (inhale, hold, exhale, and hold in four-second increments) or doing a simple body scan (pay attention to one part of your body at a time, starting with your feet and working up to your head).

Craft a counterargument

Now that you’re ready to think more clearly again, it’s time to refute your binary thoughts. Your goal is to challenge whether what your thinking is really true, by asking questions like these: What objective evidence or facts exist to support this? How would someone else view this situation? What other angles haven’t I considered yet? What actions can I take to influence what happens next?

Generating other ways of seeing situations is called reframing and can reduce the potency of whatever false perception is causing you stress. Questioning your automatic thoughts can help you discover new middle ground and a more balanced way of reacting.

Be nicer to yourself

Research has shown that self-compassion can increase your capacity to cope with negative emotions when they arise. To that end, when your internal monologue is full of thoughts about your own inadequacy, ask yourself: Is there a more generous assumption I can be making right now? Circle back to those other questions too, and try zooming out of the situation to understand how you might be casting yourself in an undeservedly unflattering light. When you learn to mentally see the world in shades of gray, you discover how to think more clearly and accurately — about both your circumstances and your own role in shaping them.

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Written by

Workplace success coach for sensitive high-achievers. Professor. Get 3 strategies execs @ Google & Facebook use to control stress melodywilding.com/guide

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