April 2, 2024

Binary Thinking vs Values

By Josh Wei
Anxiety & Depression
Mental Health & Wellbeing

From picking out what to wear each morning, to managing projects at work, our days are filled with choices. Each decision comes with the challenge of discernment and problem-solving. Binary thinking can be a helpful solution to navigating the non-stop flow of decisions. If we can figure out what is right, we will be able to succeed. However, decisions aren’t always exactly black and white, and situations are often more complex than we’d like. Sometimes, we don’t know what the “right” decision is, and this leaves us feeling stuck.

So, what exactly is binary thinking?

It is considered a thinking pattern of interpreting experiences as black-vs-white or right-vs-wrong; leaving little to no room for nuances or any other possibilities. I often talk with clients about how binary thinking can be the root of confusion, shame, and anxiety. Whether it’s seeing yourself as either a success or a failure, or believing that emotions are either good or bad, this kind of all-or-nothing thinking can make life way harder than it needs to be. Viewing ourselves in this way creates so much pressure and we end up terrified of making the wrong decision. We are left with the impression that we need to “fix” ourselves and our situation in order to feel better.

Values-based approach

Once my client and I reach a deeper understanding of the limitations of binary thinking, I like to introduce the idea of value-based thinking. This approach encourages individuals to identify and reflect on their core values and priorities, guiding their actions and choices accordingly. A value-based mindset allows for greater flexibility and adaptability in navigating various situations. Rather than seeing things as simply right or wrong, individuals can weigh their decisions against their values, considering the broader impact and context. This perspective applies internally as well! When we approach our emotions with acceptance instead of judgment, we no longer have to judge ourselves for how we are feeling.

It is important to note, binary thinking itself isn’t a problem.

If anything, binary thinking can be a strength and helpful tool! Most, if not all, professions require the ability to objectively discern the right from the wrong. What I work on in therapy sessions is gaining a better understanding of when this tool doesn’t work anymore, and how to pivot towards the client’s values. We can view and affirm ourselves for our inherent worth instead of evaluating ourselves based on our decisions. Our emotions become helpful indicators of how we are experiencing something and what we may need. This not only fosters a deeper understanding of ourselves but also promotes more meaningful and fulfilling outcomes in both personal and professional areas. Looking back, we no longer need to keep a tally of what went right and what went wrong. We can see how our efforts have propelled us towards our goals, even if we needed to make corrections.

Reach out

If you or someone you know can relate to the feelings of being stuck or self-critical and are interested in learning more, feel free to reach out to set up an appointment! A therapist can be a helpful resource in building self-awareness and healthier cognitive habits.

Written By

Josh Wei

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