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Do You Fall Into The Trap Of Binary Thinking?

Written by: Valerie Biehl, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


‘The thing is almost never the thing.’ my older brother Ryan always says.

These words have stuck with me over the years and have proven to be excellent guidance time and time again. What exactly does he mean by this? He means that we often get consumed by and caught up in a wrestling match with surface-level issues rather than diving deeper to understand the crux of the matter and solving the problem effectively.

Let’s look at a timely, timeless, and nearly universal example to illustrate this concept. The old chocolate cake problem is losing weight. (Why is it always chocolate cake?) We see the chocolate cake and think I would really like to have a piece of that delicious-looking chocolate cake. And then we remember we are trying to lose our quarantine fifteen. We then get into a willpower wrestling match around whether or not to eat the delicious-looking chocolate cake. This situation almost always ends the same way, with an empty plate, an overwhelmed belly, shame, and regret.

That is the binary thinking trap. Binary means consisting of two. Binary thinking is looking at a problem as if the entirety of all of the solutions involves just two options, do or do not. Binary thinking usually results in a wrestling match with willpower and a subsequent loss for us. For example, should we eat a piece of chocolate cake or not? Notice there is no problem solving here, only a wrestling match between yes and no. If we answer yes, we get a very short-term boost of pleasure followed by regret. If we answer no, we progress forward, rather displeased with the process of doing so, on our journey to lose weight.

I recommend avoiding engaging in wrestling matches with willpower, as willpower always feels intensely strong even though it never has to go to the gym. But even more so, there is a better way where we can find more freedom and success at the same time. We do this by ditching our binary view of situations and moving into active problem-solving. Here are three simple questions that we can ask ourselves or someone else to help make this shift.

1. What is actually going on here?

2. What are my values and goals?

3. What is the most helpful in this situation?

When we ask ourselves, what is actually going on here, we manually shift our brains out of binary decision-making mode and into expansive learning and understanding mode. And when we take a few moments to understand the situation, we can often uncover the crux of the issue relatively quickly. So, going back to our chocolate cake battle, here are some acutely common root cause issues that we often try to ignore, remedy, or make better with short-term fixes.

  • Perhaps we are overwhelmed and need to take a break for recovery activities and self-care.

  • Perhaps we desperately need sleep or simply hydration.

  • Perhaps we need to apologize for being unintentionally insensitive or selfish.

  • Perhaps we need to reach out for connection and help.

  • Perhaps we need to have the courage to convey our feeling or acknowledge our fears.

  • Perhaps we need to ask for the support we need or set healthy boundaries.

Notice none of these have anything remotely to do with chocolate cake. Short-term fixes are often merely a symptom that something else is going on. 'The thing is almost never the thing.'

For a deeper dive into understanding and processing challenging emotions, I highly recommend Brenè Brown’s new book, Atlas of the Heart. The depth and breadth of emotions captured here are superb.

After we have gained awareness around and accepted the crux of the issue, the hard work is finished. We can now move into a more authentic and energizing space by exploring who we want to be moving forward through connecting with our values and goals. Here are some thought-starter questions for this exploratory phase.

  • How do I want to contribute my gifts to the world?

  • How do I find the balance and recovery time necessary to be able to contribute my gifts?

  • How do I want to show up to the world? What type of person is it important for me to be?

  • How can I create deeper, more meaningful connections with others?

  • How can I better support others? How can I better help myself?

  • How can I provide supportive feedback to others, express my feelings, and ask for what I need through authentic and brave conversations?

  • What can I do to feel physically healthier and more alive?

Once you answer what is actually going on and explore your goals and values, knowing what is most helpful for moving forward often becomes quite clear rather quickly. When you determine what is most beneficial, it often feels like no other option will satisfy you. Therefore, it feels much easier to be brave and move forward as necessary than it did just a short time ago.

  • Maybe we need to foster courageousness to contribute our gifts to the world.

  • Maybe we need to detach from our desired outcomes and fully engage in something else for a time or connect with others to boost our performance and reach our big goals.

  • Maybe we need to give grace to ourselves or someone else when they or we fall short of expectations and disappoint or hurt us.

  • Maybe we need to muster our humility and apologize for unintentionally hurting someone else.

  • Maybe we need to embrace how important human connection is to our health and wellbeing and start a meaningful conversation.

  • Maybe we need to be brave in articulating our feelings, providing supportive feedback, asking for what we need, and setting healthy boundaries.

  • Maybe we need to take time to notice and adequately care for our bodies.

For more support in understating, accepting, and moving through life’s tough challenges, I highly recommend The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. The second edition of this book is coming out on July 5th of 2022, and I can’t wait to dive into his new content!

If you are finding yourself in a wrestling match with willpower or struggling with trying to decide between two unfavorable options, take the time to go through this process. You won't regret it.

If you have the courage to brave this process, and even without knowing you, I know that you do. You will be richly rewarded, more deeply satisfied, and more proud of the person you are becoming. You will move from a place of limitations, struggle, and fight to a place of expansive growth, exploration, and development.

When you find yourself in this place, proud of your work, perhaps you will treat yourself to a piece of chocolate victory cake, which, I guarantee, will taste infinitely more delicious.

This life is yours. You choose your own adventure.

All the best, and be well!

Follow me on LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Valerie Biehl, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Valerie Biehl, Leadership & Team Coach of Thrive Purpose, enables those committed to growth to take leaps toward their potential. She believes new ways of thinking, co-creating, and collaboration are necessary to rise to the level of change and challenge we now face. Her passion and unique coach approach arise from her life-long dedication to harnessing the mind, developing personal strengths, and facilitating the collective power of teams.

Valerie earned her MBA from Michigan State University. She enjoys binge-watching TED Talks, playing guitar, and designing knitted garments in her free time.



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