Binary Thinking

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In my youth I truly believed if I lied, it would literally break her heart. As someone who took their mother’s happiness (and health!) very seriously, I endeavored to always tell the truth.

To this day, I struggle with anything that smacks of being even slightly dishonest – even a white lie to minimize the impact of something. I get anxious and start confessing, basically unable to function until things are made right.

On its face, this seems pretty innocuous, possibly even positive. Who wouldn’t want to know they had a friend or employee who couldn’t lie effectively?

But as with anything, there are always unintended consequences. My mother’s belief that there were only ever two options has created the propensity in me for binary thinking, particularly in moments of stress.

At Corona Consulting, we believe in walking our talk and doing our own development work. As part of that, I recently started working with my own personal growth coach. We discussed one of the patterns that I had, which was no longer serving me well and she identified it as “binary thinking.” In binary thinking, a person only considers two possibilities, completely eliminating any further options.

We talked about a few situations and she asked me to consider what other options could exist. I struggled to identify any beyond the most basic and asked her to do the same. I was completely amazed that she was able to offer 6-8 possible choices within a few seconds time, when I could barely see any.

Like the greatest of learning, this was simple, but truly profound. I quickly realized some of the places in my life where I have functioned for decades (!!!) with only two options and decided not everything can or should be reduced to such a limited menu for action.

This is new skill development for me, so I am only a little way on my journey, but I can share what I have found so far and what may also be helpful for some of you.

First, binary thinking is most likely to occur when stress increases. When I get anxious and stop breathing and my body enters fight or flight, so does my mind. Options are limited, because every part of my person is focused on survival. This is great when faced with a grizzly bear, but not when facing colleagues in a meeting. The antidote for fight or flight is breathing and getting back into my thinking brain.

Second, when someone asks me to make a commitment or give an answer, I can pause and consider my response. With written communication like a text or email, I wait to really think about what I want to do and then respond. For in-person communication situations, I can (usually) ask for time. “Please let me check with my partner/my calendar/other commitments and get back to you.”

While both of these strategies may be obvious to others, they have been life changing for me.

I don’t think my Mom ever intended for me to have tunnel vision.

I can see that clearly now.