Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous, or black-and-white, or all-or-nothing, thinking is very characteristic of the thought processes of addicts. Recognizing this distortion in thinking enhances recovery.


Black-and-white thinking is characterized by the tendency to see oneself and the world in extremes. When you think in terms of success or failure, perfect abstinence or total relapse, or any other extremes, you are engaged in dichotomous thinking.

Once you become aware of the tendency for dichotomous thinking, you can recognize it in the thinking of many facets of your life. How much it pervades an addict’s thinking seems to fall on a continuum. For some, it may be related primarily to drinking, using, eating, or other addictive behavior, whereas for others it may permeate many areas of their life.

Food and Dieting

For eating addicts, the most obvious kind of dichotomous thinking is food, diets, weight, and other eating-related thoughts. Diet mentality sets you up for this kind of all-or-nothing thinking. You are either on or off a diet. You absolutely avoid all sugar or you eat huge quantities of it. Whether or not you have been good or bad, a success or a failure, is dependent on your eating. Even food is considered good or bad for you. You are either at goal weight or you are overweight. You have to have a rigid food plan or you are not abstinent.

Dichotomous thinking exists in other addictions. For alcoholics, dichotomous thinking shows in the philosophy that if you are not drinking, you are in recovery. Or, you are either in recovery or relapse. It leads some to the erroneous belief that any use of prescription psychiatric drugs is a relapse.

You may find black-or-white thinking in other areas of your life. Someone loves you or does not. You are a success or failure at your job. You are a good or bad spouse, child, or parent. You do trust others or you don’t. Whatever form dichotomous thinking takes, it doesn’t allow for the middle ground.


Having to label something or someone can be dichotomous thinking. Someone is an addict or is not. Your family is dysfunctional or normal.

The Problem

Whenever you think in extremes, you are using a model of thinking that does not fit reality. Most characteristics and experiences fall on a spectrum. To be able to see and relate to a more realistic, flexible way of thinking is necessary for good mental health.


Perfectionism is related to dichotomous thinking. It is a distortion of perception that interferes with the grace the Program has to offer. You have to have perfect recovery, perfect abstinence from all addictive behaviors or even thoughts. You have to look a certain perfect way, weigh a perfect (goal) weight, or you are not OK and therefore a failure. In reality everyone is imperfect and it is that imperfection and need for each other that is an essential element in a community of recovering addicts. You accept not only your own imperfections but everyone else’s as well.

Tie with Addiction

Addictive thinking (the mental part of PEMS) easily uses dichotomous thinking to encourage continuation of the disease. For example, your abstinence is perfect or you are a failure. Ironically, this kind of thinking can be a prime setup for relapse. It can make recovery miserable, cause more obsession, and set such standards that any hint of deviance suggests you might as well drink, use, binge, purge, or starve, since you cannot do everything perfectly anyway.


Recovery involves identifying where dichotomous thinking is causing you problems. Thinking realistically means seeing moderate alternatives, more options, and intermediate choices. It means seeing that you do not have to be perfect to be acceptable and lovable. You can understand that you are simply a human being with a variety of characteristics that make up who you are. Being human is good enough.

Recovery means using the program to accept who and what you are so you can start a journey toward the person you would like to become. And remember, recovery is the journey, not the destination.

Dichotomous thinking, see also: Affirmations, Body image, Character defects, Defenses, Delusion, Diet mentality, Habit & structure, Judgment, Magical thinking, Mental aspects, Obsession, Paradoxes in addiction, Sabotage of recovery, Slogans, Stinking thinking, Therapy & treatment, Trust, Visualizations.

Updated 8 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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