The Pros and Cons of Dichotomies

We as human beings like to sort things. It makes things easier, allows us to make quicker decisions to keep ourselves safe, and is generally just useful in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, because of our brain’s quick abilities to sort things, we often like to create dichotomies. We see this explore in a lot of feminist theory (Man is to Culture as Woman is to Nature by Sherry Ortner) when we see dichotomies lumped together: feminine is emotional is irrational is the body is nature is…and on and on and on. We see emotions and logic set at odds with each other, because we like to categorize things as one or the other.


Unfortunately for us, the world does not exist in neat categories and dichotomies. Oftentimes we have to hold conflicting ideas together in our minds and belief systems: I can be doing my best and still have to work harder. I can be emotional but still make a good decision. There are lots of dichotomies like this. Oftentimes, I see people who haven’t had a lot of experience with mental health trying to categorize things into good and bad: they list traits of successful people or successful relationships, they talk about what makes a person happy or sad, they talk about how to be healthy. Often this involves juxtaposing these supposedly good traits against their negatives.


I recently saw a post on facebook about successful vs. non-successful people. Successful people’s traits included things like “making to-do lists”, “complimenting others”, and “exuding joy”. Unsuccessful people “criticize”, “lie about keeping a journal”, and “don’t know what they want to be”. This is bad dichotomizing. It shames people for things that may not be under their control, and creates categories of things that may not go together: so for example, I am very good at setting goals, making to do lists, taking responsibility for my failures, and recognizing the success of others. However I also don’t exude joy, I don’t know what I want to be, I’m bad at setting goals, and I do a number of other things from the “bad” side. We can’t label people as one or the other: we’re all mixed bags. And the trick isn’t to make yourself everything on the “good” side, it’s to balance your traits so that YOU can be successful: some of the “good” traits are useful, others are not. This depends on individual propensities.


Dichotomies can be used in helpful and unhelpful ways. They can be really unhelpful when they’re simply unrealistic. This happens a lot when we’re talking about gender, or about race, or about sexuality, or any other large human characteristic that people like to pain with broad brushstrokes. We just get it wrong when we try to encompass everyone in a dichotomy. It erases those people who don’t fit, either by telling them that they don’t exist or by telling them that they shouldn’t exist (see: genderqueer individuals and bisexual individuals for good examples). This often makes people feel guilty or ashamed when they don’t fall neatly into the category they’re “supposed” to be in. These kinds of dichotomies try to force things into one category or another, but really just make a situation more confusing by obscuring what’s going on.


However there are times that dichotomies can be pretty great. Sometimes you need shorthand to come to a quick understanding of a situation: you’re not necessarily looking for nuance, and you need to know yes or no, white or black. This is often helpful in emergency situations, or situations where you need to act quickly and don’t have time to explain carefully. But I think there’s another really important area where dichotomies can be extremely helpful, one that doesn’t get talked about much. This has to do with dialectics. I’m currently in a therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and one of the underlying principles of this therapy is that we often live in situations that have a dialectic between two mutually opposing forces in our lives. So for instance I can at once be doing my best and have to do better. These two things contradict each other, but they can both be true. And for me to survive as a human being, I have to hold the dichotomy together as a dialectic.


For some people this is more true than for others, but I find that dichotomies are everywhere in my life: in order to gain back control of my life, I have to give up control to therapists and dieticians. In order to be more stable and safer, I have to make myself vulnerable to others. These are bizarre dichotomies, but if we are to move forward in our lives we have to recognize them and accept them. These are personal dichotomies, about understanding the relationships of certain things in our lives, rather than about categorizing outside things and people. And where these dichotomies become very helpful is when we can understand that the tension between them is not destructive, but creative. When I recognize that my eating disorder is both a method for me to take up less space and to assert myself into space, I can do some amazing things with trying to fulfill both of those functions in new places, and with trying to understand those needs creatively through writing and art. Tension drives us to try to understand, and when we need to understand we build things around us: narratives, art, symbols, concepts, systems. If we can make these things dialectical instead of oppositional, we can do a lot for ourselves.

One thought on “The Pros and Cons of Dichotomies

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