Polarized Thinking, a Cognitive Distortion

Let’s say first that polarized thinking is a cognitive distortion. This means that it is a reasoning error in which we incur without realizing it.

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Let’s say first that polarized thinking is a cognitive distortion. This means that it is a reasoning error in which we incur without realizing it. We process the information provided by reality in an equivocal way and this leads us to experience some type of emotional disturbance.

Cognitive distortions were described by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. In general, they are defined as erroneous beliefs, which lead to dysfunctional moods. This is irrational fears or unfounded sadness, etc. Polarized thinking is one of those modes of cognitive distortion.

What is in polarized thinking is an extreme simplification of reality. Things are white or black, good or bad, etc. You can not see the nuances that exist between one end and the other. Whoever has this type of distortion feels comfortable locating reality in one of the extremes. Because it happens? How to overcome it? Let’s see.

“Generalizing is always wrong.”

-Hermann Keyserling-

The characteristics of polarized thinking

The main characteristic of polarized thinking is the tendency to generalize and encompass the different realities under the same category. That’s why the favorite words for those who think like that are the most categorical: always, never, everything, nothing, etc. They do it automatically. They have to put in any of those boxes any isolated incident that comes their way.

The worrying thing is that these extreme categories are, in general, very negative. They use them to reiterate the existence of something bad. In those who think like this, expressions such as “everything goes wrong” or “always end up taking advantage of me” are common. And reasonings like that.

For those who have a polarized thought it is as if there were no nuances or midpoints. They build a good part of their identity on these compelling classifications and look for ways to locate everything there. And even if reality shows them that they are wrong, they are reluctant to abandon their radicalization.

Why does this cognitive distortion appear?

In general, polarized thinking is a characteristic of those who adopt a position of victimhood to life. Nobody does this just because, by simple whim. It is an emotional block that is the product of poorly resolved experiences. At the bottom of everything there is the idea that one has experienced “bad things” and that he did not deserve it.

The victim assumes himself as a passive object of circumstances or of “destiny”. And deny it. He does not believe that he has any control over the negative events he has experienced, nor over the management he has given them. He assumes that he has been a passive depository of damage and that he can not do anything about it.

It is then a blockade of emotional development. These types of people continue to see themselves as a child. They have not discovered tools or acquired resources that they can use to overcome many of their difficulties. In return, they project their complaint and adopt polarized thinking as a support for their existential position.

Overcome polarized thinking

This type of thinking is not only a cognitive error, but implies previous unresolved difficulties. Overcoming it means assuming a new perspective on our own history and what we are now, what we can now. Adopting the position of victims of circumstances also implies a gain: it exempts us from responsibilities. And, of course, to get out of there we basically have to accept that we are responsible for what happens to us, but above all, the way we approach it.

A good way to start is by perceiving those automatisms. Turn on an alarm each time we pronounce the categorical words such as “never,” “always,” “everything,” “nothing,” etc. Then, stop to evaluate how reasonable is the statement we are making about it.

Beyond this, it is important to think about those situations of which we feel victims. Maybe a couple relationship that causes us discomfort, or a job that we perceive as excessively demanding.

In truth, the only option we have is to stand and resist? Or perhaps, we know that there are other exits, but we are afraid to choose them? Perhaps polarized thinking is an indicator that we are not taking ourselves seriously enough. Maybe we need a space and a time to think about what happens to us.