What is Dichotomous Thinking?

Dichotomous Thinking Can Make Seeing Anything But Extremes Difficult

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Dichotomous thinking, also known as "black or white thinking," is a symptom of many mental illnesses, including borderline personality disorder (BPD). If you have BPD and dichotomous thinking is a struggle for you, you may see only the extremes of things, never the middle. Every thought or situation breaks down to black or white, good or bad and all or nothing.

This extreme thinking can cause serious overreactions or responses with significant consequences.

Whether it's breaking off a relationship or quitting a job, dichotomous thinking and BPD can affect your quality of life.

What are Examples of Dichotomous Thinking?

Dichotomous thinking can be crippling, causing you to constantly pursue your elusive idea of perfection in every area of your life. It can also open you up to unnecessary feelings of failure when you can't meet your own extreme standards. This can cause lasting feelings of failure, inadequacy or hopelessness.

You likely experience dichotomous thinking without even realizing it. For those with BPD, it's extremely common in everyday situations.

For instance, imagine you've just started a new job. When you begin, you go to the positive extreme. The job is your "dream job". Your boss is a genius. Your coworkers are fantastic. Everyone should envy you. Then, after several weeks or months, let's say you make a mistake at work and are criticized.

Suddenly, you may go to the opposite extreme. In your new mindset, it's a dead-end job with a jerk for a boss and you're ashamed to admit you work there. This shift in perception can lead you to act impulsively and erratically, such as quitting your job without a new one lined up.

Here is another example.

Let's say you have been dating your significant other for several months. You think she is gorgeous, smart and the one person you're meant to be with. However, if one thing goes wrong, such as a minor fight or she forgets something you had mentioned, you're suddenly over the relationship. You now think she's selfish, incompetent and flawed.

Treating Dichotomous Thinking

As shown in the examples above, dichotomous thinking can be very detrimental, holding you back from living a rich, full life. The good news is that dichotomous thinking and BPD can be treated.

It is usually recommended that you seek out a healthcare professional adept with borderline personality symptoms and common issues. That background is essential to get to the root of dichotomous thinking and address it.

During your therapy sessions, your therapist or psychologist may point out examples to you of your daily routine and discuss different perspectives. If you go to the extremes, he will help you identify the middle ground, introducing you to a new, more balanced way of thought.

As you progress, you will learn to question your own assumptions through asking the below:

  • Is there evidence that supports my thoughts?
  • Am I considering all angles, or am I leaving things out?
  • Could your assumption be challenged by someone else? How?
  • Does everyone else see it this way?

By taking a step back, you can build the skills necessary to learn a more realistic perception of both your relationships and environment.


Amtz, A. "Social Cognition in Borderline Personality Disorder". Behavior Research and Therapy, 2012, 707-718.

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