On the Horns of a Dual-emma

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide everyone into two kinds of people, and those who don't. The tendency to dichotomize is stubbornly pervasive in human thought. Maybe this is because it presents decision-making in its simplest form. In evolutionary terms, this method has obvious advantages. Commit to one choice and you're done. If you're an early human on the savanna, you're better off fearing all snakes than having to closely examine each specimen for venom glands.

Even in our more nuanced world, this approach still works. You don't need the company of a snake to thrive, so you can avoid them all. But things become complicated when you get what a nurse friend of mine calls a mixed IV drip of essential fluids and poison—when a person or situation seems to provide necessary things like love and comfort but is also the source of pain and upset.

Confronted with such dualities, most of us try to choose between them. Friends and advisers weigh in on each option—and both camps make sense. Your instinct is to hunker down and figure out which is the "right" answer. After all, how else will you decide to stay or divorce, quit or stick with it? But limiting ourselves to one answer means we often stop seeing what's actually happening, and we make decisions based on labels instead: "The guy is a player, so no date," or "This friendship is dysfunctional—begone!" This strategy feels right...until the guy or the friend does something truly sweet, gives you the kindness and affection you love and need, and there you are, spiked again on the opposing horns of the dual-emma.

The problem is that an either-or thought process won't resolve a both-and reality. This point was once driven home for me by a client I'll call Janet, who brought her teenage daughter "Angela" to a coaching session. Angela tearfully confessed, "I've been doing drugs and having sex with boys." Janet calmly replied, "No, you haven't; you're a good girl."

Then she turned to me and asked, "What's the real issue here?" The real issue was that Janet had no way to deal with the possibility that Angela was a good girl who also did drugs and had sex. In Janet's mind, a good person, like her honor-roll daughter, has no bad characteristics. Unable to bridge the divide, Janet went mind-blind to Angela.

Like Janet, we make judgments about all kinds of people, deciding, for instance, that surely the legendary athlete with his boyish smile and beautiful family would never succumb to roid rage. Or that the mousy homemaker next door would never have a torrid e-mail affair. We're not only shocked when those assumptions don't hold up, we're unsure how to handle the new information.

The only option for Janet, for you, for anyone who's confronted with two apparently opposite sets of data, is to blast apart the mental dichotomies that organize our minds and drive our behavior. How do you respond to the harassing boss who gives you wonderful, career-building feedback but throws degrading tantrums? Or the friend whose loyalty never fails, except that she flakes and forgets to pick you up after your appendectomy? Are they good people you want in your life or jerks you should avoid?


If you scrutinize your own life, you'll find you do plenty of things that violate the dichotomies in your mind. I certainly do. We're considerate, selfless, and clever (except for the times we aren't). Or we're luckless losers (not counting the infinite things that go right for us every day). This is the problem with either-or thinking: It keeps us removed from reality, and it requires that we spend a lot of time and energy convincing ourselves that life is one particular way (and burying evidence that doesn't jibe with that view). More important, it will never feel truthful or satisfying—because it leads to an answer that's only half-right.

Next: What to do when both things are true


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