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Ditch the binaries

In a recent meeting with my supervisor, I was reminded of the power of the word "and". You might be wondering what is so powerful about that word? Well, it is a word that connects. A word that opens up possibilities. A word that allows for multiple things to exist and be valid at the same time. A word that bypasses binaries.

A binary is simply a choice between two alternatives. This or that. Either or. Seems simple enough. The problem is that most of our "this or that"s are created on the false premise that we only have two choices in any given matter or that our choices are mutually exclusive. While there are some true dichotomies (for example you are alive or dead, there is no in-between...unless, of course, you are in the Princess Bride universe and can be "mostly dead"), most of the binaries we create are false. In setting up false binaries we create logic errors for ourselves: Mind traps that limit our perceived choices and control.

While a binary can simplify choices, it also creates cognitive rigidity that if not addressed can lead to unhealthy thought patterns, othering people, and difficulty tolerating ambivalence. In any situation, it is worth asking yourself, if you are setting up a binary that isn't really true. Ask yourself if there are other alternatives and if the situation is actually more grey/complicated than you have made it. Wonder if the word "and" is required to address multiple feelings, thoughts, and truths.

Binaries can create false limitations on possibility. They restrict our imagination and keep us stuck in cognitive boxes of our own making. If we want to live with all the possibilities, we have to open ourselves to that which is beyond the binary box we create for ourselves.

So how do we move beyond?

  1. Start paying attention to the language you use. Do you ask people binary-laden questions? (I know I do this ALL the time) For example: "Do you feel sad or angry?". Try using language that allows for possibility. In our example above we open up possibility by shifting the question to: How do you feel about that?

  2. When you feel distressed or upset, ask yourself if you have narrowed your choices into two extremes. An example would be seeing a romantic partner as either "ideal" or "the worst". If you notice you are creating extremes ask yourself what middle ground would be. You could also create a statement that isn't so generalized. For example "I love the way my partner creates interesting meals AND I find it frustrating how messy the kitchen gets".

  3. Notice when other people offer false limited choices and decide how you want to respond to such situations. Using a phrase such as "actually I prefer <alternative choice>" can be empowering.

  4. Explore moments when you feel the urge to place others into binary categories that don't represent the complexity of their reality. What is happening for you in those moments?

  5. Consciously use the word "and" to replace words such as "but", "or" ,"either" etc. when they are limiting and do not accurately reflect reality.

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