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Nonbinary Thinking: Things aren't always black and white

It was my therapist who brought it to light. She said that my tolerance for risk has increased, as had my self-trust, and she noticed that I my thinking was expanding, as well.

The ways of binary thinking that I went into therapy with had slowly morphed into more openness to uncertainty and to “not knowing.” (I love knowledge and it was difficult for me to let go of what I thought I knew.)

I was more open, yes. But before that openness were the prior steps I had to take to regain my agency and freedom of choice/thought after experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) in the form of long-term emotional abuse and manipulation.

My therapist said that the black and white thinking helped me while I was in survival mode. It served me well when I was carrying a lot and needed to lighten the load on my brain. It simplified things for me and created safety through certainty. I was able to put things in this box or that box and that’s where they stayed.

But in this partnership, she and I were intentional about my thriving and that’s where we focused. Binary thinking was becoming constricting, too rigid and isolating to me and made me feel like I was in bondage and suffocating!

Of course, I didn’t know why I was feeling that way and that’s where therapy came in. The feelings were causing me to be unsettled and it was because I was growing out of habitual patterns that I no longer needed and I was reaching towards connection and abundance in my life and relationships – social wellness.

February’s theme is about Social Wellness. Social Wellness is about nourishing ourselves and having healthy interpersonal relationships. It’s about how we cultivate and maintain relationships that benefit and contribute to our wellbeing.

Social Wellness is also about how we communicate in these relationships and how we experience the world. And binary, or dichotomous thinking will limit our experiences in this world.

Dichotomous (or Binary) Thinking is the tendency to think in terms of polar opposites – that is, in terms of the best and worst – without accepting the possibilities that lie between these two extremes. (APA Dictionary)

Think of it as:

  • Good vs. Bad

  • Right vs. Wrong

  • Healthy vs. Healthy

  • Pro-choice vs. Pro-life

  • Friend vs. Enemy

  • True vs. False

  • Success vs. Failure

  • Normal vs. Abnormal

Here another example: Liberal vs. Conservative. How much angst is caused by this rigidity of thought and being???? Too much! (I’m a Conservative Liberal or Liberal Conservative and have been for years!!!! However, trauma caused an interruption and as I recovered, my body and mind remembered…)

We are complex people who do life with other complex people, issues, thoughts and feelings, emotions, situations, experiences daily. The complexity is present whether we acknowledge it or not.

Binary thinking does not appreciate or include the nuances of humanity. It is rigidity instead of flexibility. It causes detachment, stereotypes and extremism.

Binary thinking is all around us and it is learned behavior. Again, it brings a sense of safety even though it is a safe prison. We learn binary thinking in school, in family systems, in religious institutions and in traumatic experiences.

However, we have agency. We have choice. And once we are self-aware and begin to take personal responsibility, we change what no longer works, what doesn’t serve us anymore.

Releasing nonbinary thinking means releasing the need for control. It means embracing uncertainty, which is a constant in this world. It means having a level of trust. One thing that helped me was that “I can trust the process because I trust the One Who controls the process.”

I love both/and now, rather than this/that. I learned that I’m able to hold multiple thoughts, feelings and emotions at one time and I don’t have to choose between them to make myself or anybody else feel better.

Let go and let it flow. Be a little more curious and less arrogant (me!!) that you know something. You might have placed this knowing in one of those simple boxes or compartments and it’s trying to get out, so you can examine it further and maybe expand your own capacity for thought.

Remember, this life is what we’re are given. Is limiting your thinking and processing the sign of abundance and an openness to live a full life? I don’t think so, either.

A few ways to avoid binary thinking are to:

1. Meet new people – when you need to practice on your relationships, what better way than to practice not only with people you know, but people you don’t know.

2. Try something new – an experience that is outside of the “norm” for you where you can be a little uncomfortable and uncertain. It’s about taking a kind of “safe” risk. Also, stay in tune with your body and monitor the different bodily reactions you may have (i.e., heat/cold, sweat, trembles, stomach butterflies, tension in back/neck, eye movement, excess saliva/dry mouth and everything in between)

3. Get a great therapist, who recognizes some of the limits that you place on yourself and brings them to light for more exploration. Therapy helps in so many ways and you can seek a therapist that has a background in some modalities that you would like to try!

Baby steps, right? Self-awareness is really first. Followed by self-compassion. We don’t beat ourselves up for healing and growing and changing in our minds.

Now that it’s on your radar, pay attention to how you are thinking moving forward. Do you think in a binary or nonbinary way?

Maybe, like me, you are both/and. Maybe you’re both embracing nonbinary thinking and recognizing when binary thoughts arise so you can reframe some of them to allow for (and appreciate) infinite possibilities.

For Further Exploration

Ask: When you resort to B/W thinking, in what ways do you not feel safe? Once identified, do one thing towards creating that safety for yourself.

Immediately go into practice, because we learn by doing – ugly and messily. Contact me so we can chat about it or sign in and leave a comment. I’m still exploring my own practice in this area, so it should be a very interesting discussion!

I started a new series this year on the blog that is based on the 8 Dimensions of Wellness. In 2022, I was focused on my own wellness and I found this “wheel” along with the feelings wheel, to help me identify areas of wellness where I had gaps (or giant holes!).

I audited my life according to each area and then went on an exploration and made a short list of how I wanted to support my overall wellness journey in the areas. It was helpful for me and I would like to share it with you.

Each month on the blog, minus a break or two, I will have at least one article focused on one of these areas of wellness.

Go back to January's theme and read about Spiritual Wellness and Spiritual Rest.