From Binary Thinking to a Third Way

A friend, exasperated and overworked, was telling me that there is absolutely no way to avoid working at night from Sunday through Thursday if he wants to keep his clients happy. A colleague was telling me that if she takes her proverbial foot off the gas then they won’t be able to afford the lifestyle they want to have. Another friend shared that she felt if she went back to work, she couldn’t be a good mom.

This or that. Zero-sum. Binary thinking.

I’ve heard stories like this time and again and I cringe every time. I see friends, clients and colleagues getting stuck in unhealthy, unproductive patterns stemming from old narratives and fear.

Let’s talk about where this comes from. One guess is our inner critic or the “voice of not-me” as characterized by Tara Mohr in her transformative book Playing Big.

Our inner critic is the voice inside of us that tries to keep us safe, often at the expense of our actualization. Its intentions are good, but its tactics can be incredibly damaging. The voice is usually rude and injects self-doubt at any chance. It is often irrational and can take the likeness from influential people in your life (your mother and father are some inner critic favorites!). It usually has a black-and-white way of approaching scenarios.

The inner critic voice often gets louder and harsher when we are on the verge of taking a leap or challenging convention.
When I hear the impact of the inner critic coming out in these stories, I see a tie to an old way of thinking or acting that has, in some way, been true in the past. We then create a narrative around it and hold it as an unshakable truth, when it might no longer be relevant, accurate or serving us in this current phase.

I spent most of my early career believing that the way I could get ahead was by working harder than anyone else. I built a reputation on being reliable and pretty much always saying yes to projects. My inner critic told me that I wasn’t smart enough to win on that alone, so long hours and hard work was my ticket to success.

This worked for quite some time and I had “data” that supported it – I was appreciated, respected and got those promotions I desired.

It wasn’t until I took my career completely off that track and pushed myself to work less, to set much stricter boundaries, and to re-analyze my priorities that I started to realize there was another way of doing things that might still result in the same – or possibly better – outcome.

Now, when I feel myself moving to a binary way of thinking or I see someone else doing it, I have a few tips that help expand my view and create space for new ways of approaching a problem.

Become more aware of when your inner critic is forcing you into a binary ‘this-or-that’ decision.

Name the narrative that is driving this thinking. I often like to use a phrase like, “the story I’m telling myself is [insert scenario].” This helps to separate yourself from the situation and train your brain not to be bound by the narrative.

Reverse the thinking. Say out loud what your inner critic is telling you. For example, “If I leave my job, I will not make money.” Then reverse the statement. In this example, it would be, “If I leave my job, I will make enough money.” Then give yourself three reasons why this new statement is just as true. You’ll be surprised at how much you have to support the positive statement.

Ask yourself, “What is a third option here that I’m not seeing?” Let yourself explore, brainstorm and expand your thinking without judgment. You can later weigh the benefits of the ideas but at least you’ve proven to yourself that there might be another way.

Find trusted, caring people who can help you identify when limiting beliefs might be holding you back from living your best life. These people will be able to spot it and communicate it with compassion.

Binary thinking feels comfortable and often easier than a world with many possibilities and complexities. At times it can help us be efficient and make decisions quickly. But too often it holds us back from seeing all of the rich opportunities around us to take control and make the best decision that supports our whole self.


Layla Kajer is Co-founder and managing partner of The Narrative House