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Counseling Tip: Polarized Thinking Is Hurting You
As a Utah counselor, I often meet with individuals or couples who use this one cognitive thinking error: Polarized Thinking. It’s something that you are probably doing, but don’t realize it. It hurts your mental health and causes relationship problems (Related Article: Tips For Relationship Problems). Let’s talk about what it is, how it can harm you, and what you can do about it.
What Is Polarized Thinking?
Polarized thinking is known by a few different names. All-or-nothing thinking or being black-and-white, are the most common. To define it I would use the phrases extreme thinking, one-sided, and incomplete. Simply put, it’s rigidly thinking about things from only one perspective.
Here is an example of polarized thinking regarding a mental health issue. After using pornography, you might think to yourself – “I’m a horrible person. Nothing I do works to stop this. My life isn’t worth living.” Saying to yourself that you are a horrible person only takes into account your thoughts about your pornography use (Related Articles: Pornography Counseling: Find Recovery And Healing and My Spouse Is Using Pornography, What Do I Do?). It doesn’t take into account the fact that you are a volunteer every week and are kind to others. It’s polarized because it only see’s the ‘white’ part of your life – your mistake. Not the ‘black’ and definitely not the ‘grey’. It also takes it one step farther and uses shame to reinforce your polarized position (Related Article: Individual Therapy Tips: Guilt Versus Shame).
The above example also used polarized thinking by lamenting that nothing you do works, and that your life isn’t worth living. Using superlatives (i.e., nothing, everything, always, never) is polarized. Saying that nothing works is inaccurate, right? It’s not that nothing works, but rather its that it didn’t work in that instance. However, there have been other times when you have successfully worked around pornography use and were emotionally healthy (Related Articles: Emotions 101: How To Be Healthy and 3 Principles Of Emotional Health).
How It Can Harm You
Polarized thinking can harm you and make your marriage problems worse because of its extreme and incomplete nature. You are human and are imperfect. Polarized thinking tries to measure you against perfection and shames you when you don’t reach it. Or, it might do the same as you look at others – you expect perfection or at least more than they are.
When this is the case, relationship problems and mental health issues arise. You don’t allow for mistakes and imperfections and that causes strain. There is a part of you that feels judged and misunderstood when you use it on yourself. It isn’t that you aren’t trying to stop using pornography, but that this time you used. Other times you were successful at dealing with life’s discomfort without avoidance/pornography. Polarized thinking doesn’t let you see that grey area. So you might become discouraged and depressed.
What To Do About Polarized Thinking
First of all, notice that you are doing it. Many people engage in this type of thinking, but don’t realize it. So, try to notice that you are using it. Pay attention to when you use superlatives. If you do, then try to see the middle, grey areas of what you are talking about.
Second, deliberately find the grey ares. You can talk about them and embrace them. You might not believe that you are still a good person and that you life is worth living if you just used pornography, but you can still try. You can say, “Using pornography was a mistake. And I’m still a good person. I’m making progress, even if I slipped up today”. That’s very grey. This allows you to be human.
Third, watch for it in your relationships. Be careful to not use it against others. It’s not that your spouse is completely bad because of the mistakes they make, but rather, that they are struggling with that area. They still have a lot of good in them and are human just like you. This will help your marriage problem tremendously (Related Articles: Create Emotional Safety Through Fixing Marriage Problems and 4 Signs You Have Marriage Problems).