We’ve been talking lately about the words we use. Noticing certain patterns can show us where we’re getting stuck and might want to make some changes. Switching up the words we use can help us see both the obstacles and the possibilities we didn’t realize were there.
Today I’d like to take a look at another common thought pattern—either/or thinking. I have a tendency to fall into this way of thinking a lot. I think most us do at least some of the time, often without even realizing it.
We’ve talked about either/or thinking before in the context of our emotions . We don’t have to be either happy or sad. We can be happy and sad (and scared and mad) all at the same time.
Either/or thinking isn’t limited to our emotions. It can show up in any area of our lives. A couple of the big areas where it keeps popping up for me are how I see myself and what version of me I allow others to see.
I can be pretty harsh when judging my own capabilities. Either I do it perfectly every time or I’m no good at it. Either I succeed right away or it’s not worth trying. Either I get positive feedback or it was terrible. Either we agree or I must be wrong.
My assumptions about what others think about me often show up as either/or thinking as well. Either I have to be who they expect me to be or they won’t like me. Either everyone likes me or I’m not likable. Either I agree with what they say or they’ll think I’m rude. Either I always put everyone else first or I’m selfish.
What a stressful way of thinking! There is so much pressure in believing everything has to be just right or it’s all wrong. I get stuck believing I have to choose between one extreme or another and lose sight of opportunities to learn, change, and grow.
As with the other words we’ve talked about, the point isn’t about policing our vocabulary, but instead about noticing where we’re getting stuck and opening up some space to explore. Something I’ve found helpful when I notice either/or type thoughts is to rewrite those thoughts swapping out the either/or for both/and.
We can both disagree and have a respectful conversation where we learn from each other. I can both make mistakes and be pretty good at what I do. I can both know people who don’t like me and have some amazing friends. I can both disagree with someone and be respectful and kind.
When I notice I’m using either/or thinking and remember to make this simple switch I usually feel a weight lift from my shoulders. I feel less pressure to get everything just right because completely wrong isn’t the only other option. I find spaciousness where the situation had seemed narrow and limiting.
Moving beyond either/or thinking opens us up to other possibilities and lets us see a fuller picture. It makes room for us to embrace our whole selves, even the parts that seem contradictory. Sometimes the answer is bigger than what we can see and understand right now. Sometimes there just isn’t one specific right answer.
My suggestion for you today is simple. Pay attention to where either/or thinking comes up for you (although you might not use those exact words). Also, look at any areas in your life where you’re feeling a little stuck and see whether any either/ors are showing up there.
Try rewriting your either/or thoughts using both/and instead. How you feel differently? Do any possibilities open up for you?