Is polarized thinking stealing your peace? Chances are, it could be. It’s a common cognitive distortion that can wreak havoc on our mental health, relationships, and peace of mind.
While there are many thought patterns that can cause us grief, this particular form of toxic thinking has been on my mind lately. Probably because I’ve seen it on display so often in the news, social media posts, and just the general public discourse recently. It seems to have become part of our group think – our collective way of seeing things. And sadly, the more we get hooked into this kind of thinking, the more divided we’re becoming.
But polarized thinking isn’t just a problem for our collective psyche. It can seriously interfere with our relationships – both with our self and others – as well as leave us feeling frequently discontent. I grapple with it myself sometimes. And when I’m paying attention, I’ve noticed I can stop it in its tracks with one little word. One seemingly magical word can change my whole perception – opening up space for peace, understanding, compassion, and possibility.
What is that word? And how does it manage to do so much? That’s what I’m sharing in today’s post. If you value your peace of mind, you’re going to love this little mind hack.
But, first things first….
What Is Polarized Thinking?
Before we dive into this special word, and how it can free us from the mental trap of polarized thinking, let’s take a look at what this trap is. And why we so easily fall into it. Because the first step in correcting any kind of faulty thinking is to recognize when our mind is producing it. And in order to do that, we have to understand what it is and how it operates within us.
Polarized thinking is a cognitive distortion that leads us to see our self, others, or our circumstances in terms of polar, or opposite, extremes. That’s why it’s often referred to as all-or-nothing or black-or-white thinking. Other common dichotomies it can set-up include always-never, all good-all bad, all right-all wrong, love-hate, etc. Basically, it oversimplifies, eliminating any grey area or nuance from otherwise complex situations. (And isn’t everything at least a little bit complex?)
Examples Of Polarized Thinking
For example, let’s say you experience a big disappointment. Maybe you get passed over for a promotion you really want. Or you spend hours preparing for a job interview. And even though you feel like you nailed it, you never hear back from the company. Polarized thinking would produce an inner monologue that sounds something like this:
I never get what I want. No matter how hard I try, I always seem to fail. What’s wrong with me? God, I hate my life.
Such thinking creates a feeling of defeat and hopelessness. It reinforces low self-esteem and perhaps even germinates bitterness.
However, a more nuanced interpretation stays closer to actual known facts. It holds space for many possibilities and enables a healthier, more self-supportive emotional response. It might sound something like this:
I’m so disappointed I didn’t get the position. I wonder what caused them to pick someone else over me? Maybe I need to work on my interviewing skills. Or, maybe the person they hired has more experience than me. Then again, maybe the company just isn’t a good fit for me. I need to think about this some more and figure out what my next steps should be.
Polarized Thinking In Relationships
Polarized thinking can erode our relationships, including the most fundamental one of all – the relationship we have with our own self.
Have you ever had someone accuse you of always or never doing something? It can feel insulting, especially when you know you can easily list several times in the past month you did or didn’t do that very thing. How can they not remember or see that? Of course, in all likelihood, they do remember and see that, but they’re exaggerating the truth at the moment, because they’re caught up in some overwhelming emotions.
While polarized statements like this are considered a big no-no in effective communication, they often come up in arguments, or when someone’s feeling especially upset about something. It serves two purposes. One, to vent their emotional upset. And two, to emphasize how important this thing is to them, or how much it’s bothering them.
Polarized Thinking Can Harden Our Hearts
But what happens when we begin to interpret our relationships through this polarized lens? In other words, it’s not just words that come out for the sake of an argument. We really start to think of this other person in terms of always-never, love-hate, or all right-all wrong. For that matter, what happens when we direct such extreme judgments at our own self?
The answer is, we lose sight of the whole picture. We take less notice of the times when this person – which may be us – does do or say the good or right thing. We overlook the ways in which they may be partially right. Or the times they do in fact meet expectations. Our leap to judgment short-circuits any attempt to understand what’s happening inside them – or us – that might add nuance to the situation, and our interpretation of it.
The result of all of this is, our capacity for compassion, forgiveness, grace, and a wiser perspective diminishes. And our heart hardens.
If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past year or so, you’ve probably noticed divisiveness increasingly taking hold. And depending on where you get your news, you may be arriving at sharply different conclusions about what’s going on in our world than someone who sources their news elsewhere. That’s because journalism as a profession has largely adopted an activist position and an opinion-based format when it comes to reporting the news. It’s not just facts. The news has become a kind of political theater. One that makes use of our emotions and impulses much the same way the marketing profession does.
On top of that, social media networks have become a vast public square – where news, political views, and opinions get shared and amplified, regardless of their merit or truth. And this is spurring heated debates, usually driven more by a desire to crush dissenting views than to listen and learn from each other.
The result of all this? As a community, we’re becoming more and more polarized.
We’re beginning to see our friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow citizens, and sometimes even family members as the enemy. We’re wrapping complex, multi-dimensional people into little packages we’ve labeled as all-good or all-bad, all-right or all-wrong. And depending on the label we’ve assigned them, we’re fostering feelings of love or hate accordingly.
Opening Up The Space
I know this little blog post can’t change that bigger picture. But what it can do is call attention to the ways in which we – as individuals – can prevent ourselves from getting swept up in the collective momentum of polarized thinking. So we can avoid being emotionally manipulated, encourage our own critical thinking, and look for the wiser perspective. So we can preserve our sense of shared humanity and compassion, even in the midst of disagreement. And so we may keep inner and outer peace to the best of our ability.
When we resist polarized thinking, we open up the space where solutions, possibilities, and new and deeper understandings have a chance to thrive. But it requires us to resist the impulses that anger, fear, disgust, etc. ignite within us, long enough to contemplate where another person might be coming from. How another idea might have come to be. Or, where the common ground can be found. And that is almost always – at the very least – in the recognition of our shared human nature.
The Shortcut Of Polarized Thinking
In some regards, polarized thinking is lazy. It shortcuts our mental and emotional processing, compressing what would otherwise be a lot to consider and hold space for into a package that seems easier to digest. Instead of having to contemplate all the possible reasons we may not have gotten the job we wanted, it’s simpler to summarize it as, I never get what I want. Instead of stepping back to reflect on the patchwork of wins and losses our life has pieced together, the momentary sense of loss can overwhelm us. And if we don’t resist it, we end up with, I hate my life.
But is the shortcut really easier if it leaves us feeling hopeless, depressed, defeated, or any other extreme emotion? Especially if we repeatedly engage in it? After all, if we take that shortcut often, don’t we risk creating a negative, self-fulfilling feedback loop?
Losing Our Connectedness
And what happens to our sense of connectedness in our relationships – or in the larger pool of our collective identity – when we frequently label our self, others, and circumstances in terms of all good or all bad, all right or all wrong? When we leap haphazardly between the extremes of love and hate? Or when we narrow our view of history to fit the frames of always and never? The answer is, we whittle away at our connectedness.
When we lose compassionate understanding – for our self or others – we become more isolated. And when we interpret life through a lens that says experiences, people, and things are all good or all bad, we become more negative, anxious, uninspired or depressed. Because bad things will happen. Wrong words will be spoken. People will mess up and disappoint us. That’s just a fact of life. When it happens, if we amplify it by attributing always or all-ness to it, we also amplify our emotional responses to it.
The Probability Factor In Polarized Thinking
So why does our mind want to warp our perception this way?
I don’t think it’s just laziness. I think it’s also a matter of discomfort with not knowing and uncertainty. Our mind likes to draw conclusions and settle on judgments. It doesn’t like ambiguity as much as it likes classifying our experiences under easy labels. Because once a conclusion’s been drawn – a judgment’s been made – the matter’s settled. The uneasiness of not knowing what to think about something goes away.
I’m fascinated with quantum physics. I’m no expert, but I’ve read several laymen’s books that tie some intriguing quantum phenomena to more philosophical teachings. One of the things I learned about in my reading is the probability wave function. It’s a mathematical equation that’s used to chart all the possible positions and states a quantum particle can be found in within the context of an experiment – before we actually measure it. Until we measure it, the particle exists in any of those possible positions or states. But once we measure it, the wave function collapses. All those possible positions – or outcomes – are no longer relevant. Now we have just one possible scenario, which is the one we actually measured.
The Comfort Of Certainty
Obviously, that’s a very simplified explanation, but it suits our purpose here well enough. I bring the probability wave function up, because it seems a fitting way to illustrate what our mind is doing when it falls into the trap of polarized thinking. Rather than remaining open to all the interpretations, possibilities, and factors we might want to consider before drawing a conclusion, our mind wants to collapse the probability wave function into one truth. That truth may be uncomfortable or upsetting to us. But for our mind, having a sense of certainty or resoluteness is more comfortable than the fuzziness of grey areas and nuance.
Consider the example we used earlier about the lost job opportunity. There are many reasons you might not have been selected for the position. The other candidate could have had more knowledge, more relevant experience, or a more professional resume, communication style, or appearance. The interviewer might have known them, been attracted to them, or had something in common with them. For that matter, the interviewer may have been stressed-out during your interview. Or, you could have reminded them of someone from their past they despise. On the other hand, maybe you weren’t as prepared as you thought. Or, if you believe in divine intervention, maybe this job would have been a disaster for you. The Universe or God had your back.
The point is, there are so many factors that could have sealed your fate. And most of them are simply unknowable. But your mind wants to know, so it can use this experience to help guide you in the future. What conclusion should it draw?
The Emotional Factor In Polarized Thinking
When we lack enough facts to arrive at a logical conclusion, our emotional interpretation often wins by default. We may not know enough because we don’t have access to the data. Or, because we haven’t taken the time to think calmly and rationally. Other times, there just isn’t a clear answer. Regardless, the deficit leaves us at the whims of emotional thinking. And heightened emotions tend to produce more polarized thinking.
Naturally, the disappointment of not getting the job you want might leave you feeling some mixture of sadness, rejection, humiliation, and frustration. And this decidedly negative emotional state might summon up memories of past disappointments, failures, and losses. In the context of this psychic soup, it’s no wonder a thought like I never get what I want or I always fail might bubble up.
The question is, what do you do with that thought? Do you collapse the probability wave function around it, and accept it as the truth of the situation? Or, do you recognize it as polarized thinking and reject it, holding out for a wiser, more self-supportive perspective?
Likewise, when someone you love, respect, or otherwise value hurts or disappoints you, it can be tempting to classify them as a source of pain, betrayal, frustration, etc. Which makes it natural to feel inclined to protect yourself, pull away, recall past wounds, lash out, etc. But is that the whole – or even predominant – truth about them? About your relationship with them? Are there other factors at play, maybe some you’re not seeing or able to see?
The same self-defensive dynamic can play out when it comes to ideas, beliefs, and worldviews we hold dear. When we encounter someone with a strong opinion that challenges our point of view, it can feel threatening. Or confounding. How can they possibly think that way? What if their ideas win? When we feel threatened, or can’t imagine finding any common ground between us, the urge to simply write-off the person and/or their ideas as unworthy of our consideration can be powerful.
Of course, sometimes an idea is so obviously wrong it doesn’t deserve our time and attention. And when the other person’s aggressive in their assertions, or their opinions seem like they could cause harm, it can trigger real fear. Meaning, we may have good reason to fear them.
However, what I’m talking about here is polarized thinking that shuts down contemplation of other perspectives prematurely. It cuts off opportunity for meaningful dialogue without warrant. It rejects seeing the other person as a human with a long history of experiences that may have shaped their view in a way that’s markedly different from our own. Without legitimate consideration of the merits, it concludes another point of view is wrong or bad, simply because it challenges our own. Or, it doesn’t leave an opening for any points on which we might actually agree.
This kind of closed-minded thinking often leads to the conclusion that because this person holds an opposing opinion on certain issues, they must just be a bad person. And it’s perhaps most pernicious when it generalizes that judgment to a whole group of people. Additionally, it prevents us from seeing the kinds of solutions and new perspectives that might arise from combining what’s valuable in both points of view.
One Word That Can Counteract Polarized Thinking
Which brings me to that magical word I mentioned at the start of this post.
Yes, this little 3-lettered word can neutralize polarized thinking. It’s a word that combines and joins – a conjunction. As such, it opens up the space for more than one perspective. It doesn’t ask us to choose one conclusion. At least not immediately. Instead, it invites us to explore a variety of interpretations and possibilities.
How It Works
When we recognize we’ve entered the territory of all-or-nothing thinking, all we have to do is remind our self of this word. And ask our self, how can I inject and here? Which means, what are all the possible or other ways I can look at this? What additional information might be useful for me to find out and/or consider?
Take our example of the lost job opportunity. Instead of accepting the thought that tells you – I never get what I want, I always fail – injecting and might sound like this:
I didn’t get what I wanted, and that’s happened to me so many times. It hurts to feel like I’ve failed. It makes me feel like giving up…
And it’s also true there have been times when I did get what I wanted. Times when I did succeed. And that felt really good. It gave me hope. The truth is, sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose. I can learn from this and win again.
I like to think of it as a this-and perspective. It acknowledges the real emotions you’re feeling, and then adds in other perspectives. This is true, and so is this. It’s a more expansive, realistic assessment of the situation that maintains hope and possibility. Emotionally, it installs a sort of floor beneath you – one that keeps you from falling into a pit of discouragement or despair.
A More Honest, Compassionate Perspective
When someone you care about hurts or disappoints you, it can be easy to want to push them away with polarizing thoughts. Like, they’re never here for me when I need them. Or, they always belittle me. And if they’ve done or said something especially hurtful, love can swiftly turn to hate. Injecting the and in these kinds of situations might sound something like this:
What they said/did really hurt me. I feel like I can never trust them again. Like they don’t care about me at all. How could they say/do that to me?
And I also know they’ve shown me they care many times in the past. They’ve been someone I could count on. Maybe there’s something else going on here I’m not aware of. Maybe I need to talk to them and find out where they’re at, what they were thinking. And then figure out where to go from there.
This pause to reflect on the fuller history of the relationship allows space for a more honest reflection on its nature. It adds to the equation the possibility there might be something going on with the other person you know nothing about. And this opens the door for compassion, grace, and forgiveness, even if you do end up choosing to let go of the relationship. It keeps your heart soft and wise.
The Bigger Picture
The and technique can also prove quite helpful when it comes to processing all the conflicting ideas and opinions we encounter in the collective arena. Especially when we’ve already settled on some strong viewpoints of our own. It keeps us open to new information and alternative ways of looking at things, so we can continue to grow and learn, instead of stagnating in our worldview. It helps us avoid demonizing other people or shutting down opportunities for finding solutions and compromises. And as a bonus, it helps preserve our peace. Because when we get riled up with the extreme emotions that often accompany polarized thinking, we’re not at peace.
Let’s take for example the huge – and growing – divide between the liberal and conservative points of view. You may feel strongly one way or the other. And of course, you have a right to. However, this doesn’t have to translate into feelings of hatred for the other side. Or thinking there’s nothing of value the other side can bring to the table. Likewise, it doesn’t have to jump to the conclusion people who hold opposing views are all idiots, have nefarious intentions, or have no reasonable basis for their worldview.
Injecting The And
In this case, injecting the and might sound like this:
I can’t understand how they can possibly think that way. If those ideas were to take over, I’m afraid (fill in the blank) would happen. There doesn’t seem to be any common ground between us anymore. Because if they can believe that, it seems they don’t care about (fill in the blank).
And I also know they’re human, just like me. They probably have their own fears about what I believe. I wonder what has led them to see the world this way. I know these experiences (fill in the blank) have led me to believe what I do. What could have led them to believe what they do? Where’s the disconnect? And, even if we can’t agree, at least I can acknowledge they have a right to their point of view, just like I do. I’m not going to let this difference steal my capacity for peace of mind, compassion, and common decency.
Open-Minded & Balanced
I’ve used this technique many times to keep myself balanced and open-minded about the political and social issues we face. And every time I really sit in contemplation of where another person – or the other side – might be coming from, I find myself faced with the reality there is no singular or absolute truth when it comes to politics. In fact, many conflicting truths can exist at the same time. A society is an extraordinarily complex system, composed of many individuals who are complex in their own rights too.
Yes, we have to make decisions on how we’re going to live together and organize our society. Which means, we have to collapse the probability wave function at some point and choose a path forward. But that doesn’t have to mean we stop listening, stop learning, or start demonizing. We can resist collective polarization. And it begins by resisting polarized thinking when we observe it arising within our own self.
Polarized thinking can be seen as the product of our judging mind – on steroids. Which means, a regular practice of mindfulness can greatly support us in shifting out of it. That’s because mindfulness not only helps us recognize when faulty thought patterns arise, but its emphasis on non-judgment can relax hyper-judgmental tendencies over time. Furthermore, when we bring mindful communication skills into debates and disagreements, we can temper emotional triggers that can lead us to polarized thinking. (Learn more about How To Mindfully Disagree.)
Basically, when we’re mindfully aware of what’s happening within us, remembering to inject the and becomes much easier.
What do you think? Can you see the value in this technique? What’s been your experience with polarized thinking? Let me know in the comments section.