My disdain for the word “or” came in fourth grade when I took my first True OR False exam in Science.
“True or false, the world has people in it,” the test question mused.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “it is true that the world has people in it, but it also has animals and trees and insects…that must mean the answer is false…but the answer couldn’t be false because there ARE people in the world…”
I remember circling true, and then drawing arrows leading to a written paragraph on the back of the test describing possible scenarios that could contradict the answer that I had chosen. “Yes, there are people in the world AND there are also animals, trees, insects and grass.”
I hated that they only gave me two choices on two opposite ends of a broad continuum of correctness. It made me feel as though I had been pushed into a corner, and NOBODY (warning dichotomous word, you’ll understand later) puts baby in a corner.
When many possible outcomes are limited to just two opposite outcomes, it leads many individuals to develop a cognitively distorted way of thinking called, All or Nothing Thinking. Ashley Thorne, LMFT was quoted on PsychCentral describing the dangers of all or nothing thinking.
[All or nothing thinking] creates extreme and impossible expectations. It requires achieving the positive part of each thought (e.g., being successful, smart, leading a great life) with absolute perfection. Because that’s unattainable, people settle on the other option: the negative. As a result, people view themselves and their experiences negatively, which often leads to depression, anxiety, low motivation and a sinking self-esteem.”
In essence, thinking in this manner creates an unrealistic expectation leading to inevitable failure.
A major aspect of effective therapy is being able to help a client to free themselves from what has become a prison in their mind. Instead of using dichotomous language (extremes like always OR never) that further traps individuals into limiting thoughts and outcomes, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps individuals to understand that outcomes can occur on a continuum between the two extremes AND the two extremes can happen at the same time!
Black OR White.
This is a phrase that we hear often to describe two things that don’t go together. Allow me to cognitively un-distort this notion for you. These two colors / states are not mutually exclusive; actually, it is possible for them to occur concurrently. Things can in fact be both black AND white. Things can also be placed on the broad continuum that exists between black and white (grey, eggshell, graphite, slate, charcoal). Some of my favorite things are actually black AND white: Dalmatians, Oreos, George Clooney’s hair…
So let put this into context for each of our own recovery journeys.
What you can do:
If you find yourself using the word “or” try instead to use a less restricting word such as “and.” Yes AND no, good AND bad, sad AND happy. Try this out and experience more freedom to explore inner feelings and emotions. You could also do your best to expand your perspective—there are times when a dichotomous word is warranted, but maybe you could allow yourself to hang out in the shades of grey for a little while. There are a lot of really cool words in between good and bad, so I urge you to experiment using some of these words and notice how it makes you feel. Finally, give yourself a break if you get stuck in this all OR nothing kind of thinking. Like any intervention, retraining your brain to think differently takes a lot of practice and a lot of patience. If you find yourself getting stuck in this kind of thinking, simply notice it and try to reframe this scenario into a less cognitively distorted thought, and stick it into your back pocket to use for next time!
Natalie Cohen is the Senior Marketing and Community Relations Associate as well as the Social Media Coordinator for Walden Behavioral Care. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Maine in Orono. Her favorite part of working at Walden is being able to act as an advocate for clients suffering with mental illnesses and interacting with other eating disorder professionals in the community. In her free time, Ms. Cohen enjoys yoga, shopping and doting on her dogter Bella.