Updated: May 7, 2020
by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
Sometimes in therapy, as clinicians, we can notice some "themes" that seem to be 'going around' - or maybe it's simply our frame of thinking as the therapist, seeing that one topic is coming up over and over again. The most popular conversation in my sessions in the last few weeks have been centered around:
"If I'm working, I can't do self-care. If I'm taking care of myself, I'm not working. I feel bad about myself either way."
This way of thinking can be categorized as "binary thinking". Either we are 1) working OR 2) relaxing. It seems very straightforward and logical. However, when pushed to the extremes, binary thinking can cause us to think in "absolutes". This attaches a meaning to it, like heroes and villains, good and evil; a simple observation can turn into an entire character flaw. It shows up like this:
I'm never going to be good at this.
I'm always making the wrong choices.
She's been like this forever.
He can't change.
This is called "all or nothing" thinking. Both of these are called cognitive distortions. Our brains can often organize our thoughts as though one is completely separate from the other. The fact is, our world and our own experiences are much more complicated than that. We are constantly making good AND bad choices; we are constantly evaluating the world around us and developing, growing, changing in response to our environment. To say that anything is "always" or "never" is to deny our nature of change.
If I see binary thinking, it's important for me to point it out and offer a different perspective.
We often say things like, "I always do this," or "I'm never good enough," when we feel frustration or despair. Maybe we have a few examples lined up in our head, or even many examples, which seem to offer the evidence that we will continue on this path of feeling worthless or helpless or powerless.
Breaking this type of thinking is deceivingly simple, but it can be very challenging and we often have to work hard to do so. Using the following steps, you can "rinse and repeat" them whenever you find yourself using binary thinking.
1) Observe your thinking and identify binary language.
You can't stop what you don't observe! Key words such as:
can't / ever
identifying language, e.g. "I am bad at this", or "She is a terrible person"
phrasing things in a dilemma, such as: "I need to sleep, but I haven't finished my work"
These words or phrasing can help you recognize when you are engaging in framing your experience in this way.
2) Identify your emotion.
As stated, it is important to note that underneath binary thinking, there is always a feeling - typically one of frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, or despair. If you are unaware of these emotions, it can lead to attaching to a faulty meaning, of yourself or of the world around you.
If we can separate our feeling from the action or event, we can observe it for what it is - information about our beliefs and values - and learn to make a more informed decision about whatever it is.
I feel guilty about my productivity today. I wish I had done more work. If I had done more work, I would feel better about myself. I also feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Working in quarantine seems to be difficult for me and I don't know why.
3) Offer curiosity to the problem. Invite in counterexamples.
After identifying our emotions, it is essential to offer ourselves curiosity as the more helpful version of shame. When we shame ourselves, we have decided a meaning about our own behavior.
"You weren't productive today, so you're a terrible person."
Curiosity, on the other hand, recognizes that we are struggling AND leaves the meaning open.
"I wasn't productive today, and I feel some guilt and shame around that. I wonder where that's coming from... I am curious what this could be telling me about my needs."
4) Wonder about the connection between the two seemingly opposed choices.
Yes, it can be cheesy but our interconnected nature can be seen like the circle of life. If we zoom out far enough, we notice that sleep and productivity are related to one another. If we have restful sleep, we are more efficient and productive. When we reframe our rest to be part of the necessary process of our work, it is invited into "team productivity" rather than feeling like the opposition.
Caveat: Sometimes feeling like sleep is 'productive' may also be overwhelming or unhelpful; noticing the language we use can be a major part of understanding ourselves and the world around us.
So, should you work or self-care? Taking a step back, you may find that the question lends itself to binary thinking. Within a day, you will be participating in both. And when they work together, you will feel more whole, more confident, more at peace. The question becomes:
How can my work and self-care support each other?
If you or someone you care about is in need of support, call Foresight today to schedule an appointment.
All of our therapists are continuing to support our members through telehealth.