Stress Relief Methods: Either-Or Thinking

by Doc Orman, M.D.


This week, we’re focusing on focus.  Sorry, I couldn’t avoid the irony. 

In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the major categories of hidden causes of stress—Either/Or Thinking.  This one category, which contains many specific types of  Either/Or Thinking, plays an important (but often unseen) role in how much stress we experience.  

What Is Either/Or Thinking? 

Either/Or Thinking is our tendency to automatically view the world around us, and many of the events that happen within it, from an either/or framework.  It is a pattern of thinking that is very prominent in Western, industrialized societies and less prominent in others, particularly Eastern, Oriental cultures. 

With Either/Or Thinking, we tend to view life as occurring in very discrete, polarized opposites.  Something happens, and we view it as being either good or bad.  Someone does something or says something, and we view it as being either right or being wrong.  Something goes well, and we look for people to credit.  Something goes poorly, and we look for people to blame. 

In other words, we tend to view many aspects of life from a wide array of polarized Either/Or dichotomies.  Something can be either black, or it can be white.  But if it is black, it can’t be white, and so on. 

The Problem With Either/Or Thinking 

While Either/Or Thinking may seem like a convenient way of simplifying our understanding of life, it can lead to faulty impressions that can cause us to experience stress.  The reason is that life rarely happens in nice, neat, one-sided, compartmentalized ways.  Life is usually much more complex, messy, and multidimensional.  So when we focus exclusively on just one side of a complex dualistic reality, we artificially make it appear to be exclusively one-sided, when in truth it is not. 

For example, life rarely happens in exclusively good or exclusively bad ways.  Most things that happen have both good and bad qualities, or they can have potentially good and bad possibilities to them.  Eastern cultures have embodied this dualistic nature of reality in a Yin-Yang way of thinking, where aspects of life are viewed as always having a broader spectrum of qualities, including both sides of a dichotomy, even though it may initially appear to have only one. 

Either/Or Thinking, Focus, And Stress 

When we focus on just one side of an Either/Or perspective, and deny the existence of any other qualities, we significantly distort the truth about reality.  And when we have a distorted view of reality, we can generate stress in our lives that would never have occurred if we had a more correct and expanded view of what actually happened. 

Similarly, when we become aware that we have automatically become trapped within a very narrow, one-sided view of reality, and when we consciously choose to expand our focus to consider other legitimate viewpoints, we can prevent or eliminate much of the stress that did result, or would have resulted, from our previously distorted viewpoints. 

Here again, we see the enormous influence of focus in our lives.  Because we live (and grow up within) a society that conditions us to think in misleading Either/Or terms, our focus is restricted to just one side of a much broader reality, and we can generate stress as a consequence. 

On the other hand, we all have the ability to expand our focus…anytime we choose.  Even though our bodies are programmed to think in Either/Or ways, we don’t have to remain stuck in these narrow perspectives. We can consciously choose to expand our view and consider other aspects of reality that may also be true. 

So the next time you automatically view something as being exclusively good, or exclusively bad, or exclusively right, or exclusively wrong—take just a few moments to test your awesome powers of focus.  See if you can look from the opposite perspective and notice other “truths” about reality that your initial, limited focus might have caused you to miss. 

If you try this a few times, you might be amazed at what new things you will see.  In fact, if you get very good at this handy refocusing skill, you might just find that some of your stress will magically disappear. Hocus focus!


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