Overcoming Either-Or Thinking

I’ve been reading How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. It’s a thought-provoking book and there have been several “habits” that the authors point out that I completely identify with and many that I shared with other executive women I know. “Suzy, we totally fall into this trap!” Like the habit number one which is Reluctance to Claim Your Achievements. I run around thinking someone will notice all the self-initiatives I’ve taken on and the successful outcomes that have been achieved, while my male counterpart boasts about his achievements. This is trap number one of either-or. I think you are either humble or boastful. There is no in between. But rationally, in the light of day, I know there is an in between. There are those folks out there, both men and women, who point out their success with confidence and don’t come across as boastful. It’s because of my either-or thinking that I keep my mouth shut about my accomplishments. I don’t want to be a braggart, so I go the other direction and keep it small, if I mention it at all.


In my career in Human Resources, I’ve seen a lot of either-or thinking. It’s black or it’s white. It’s right or it’s wrong. My immediate impulse on many different challenges has been either-or. One person breaks the rule? Either send an email to everyone admonishing the whole group or keep silent and hope it stops. The team doesn’t like my proposal? Either shut up and never speak up again, or keep speaking up until I am heard ad nauseum. The blowhard is going off on a crazy tangent again? Either roll your eyes and stay clear, or confront the guy and lose face in front of everyone. The pendulum swing is full of absolutes. There is no gray. No middle. No both. For me, it’s stress inducing and sleep-depriving.

Here are some ideas on how to stay clear of either-or thinking:


Most things are on a continuum. I think of comparison reports I use with Everything DiSC Workplace Assessments. This report will show how two different co-workers compare on a particular behavior. Like Joe may be careful and John may be daring. If Joe and John are working on a project, they are likely to butt heads. It’s important to be clear that we are all on a continuum. It’s important to hear the other out. If John tends towards being daring, he may assume his idea is best. He’ll need to bite his tongue and hear Joe out. Joe might need to speak up and not be overtaken by John’s daring. Most of all, it’s important not to shut each other down with the either-or thinking. Instead, acknowledge that they are on opposite ends of the continuum, but both have valid points of view.

Viking or Victim

This is a concept from Brene Brown. “Either you are a Victim in life –a sucker or a loser who’s always being taken advantage of or can’t hold their own –or you’re a Viking –someone who sees the threat of being victimized as a constant, so you stay in control, you dominate, you exert your power over things, and you never show vulnerability.” So, either you are a door mat or you are stomping everyone else down. Neither sounds like fun to me but I frequently take either end of that spectrum. The secret as prescribed by Brene is to be vulnerable. It’s a scary word to use in the business world. It’s falling on the sword if you make a mistake and let folks involved know you failed but not let them walk across you for every transgression. There is a middle ground with vulnerability. Speak your truth but don’t overstep and take on every failing as your own. Be careful not to take up the sword against someone else’s expression of vulnerability as well. There is an equilibrium in between. Admit your failings while making sure you acknowledge someone else’s vulnerability.

The Story

Check in on the story you are telling yourself. I can get caught up in the story of being rejected. Pushed away. I start thinking that every little slight or oversight is due to my being inferior. I didn’t get invited to the party. I haven’t heard from a friend in a long time. My boyfriend hasn’t texted in two days. I can create a story about all of it, making me out as the victim. I become small. Ugly. Insignificant. It is all just fiction. Perhaps my name change prompted my removal from the guest list. Perhaps my friend lost my contact information. Perhaps there is no cell coverage in the mountains of southern Maine. I am constantly telling myself stories.  I need to make sure I am the fact checker on the story or find a friend or coach to tell my story to. Try starting off with “The story I’m making up is…” Sometimes I wonder what the movie would be if the thoughts that go through my head were made into a movie. I can imagine that the audience would think, well this is pointless and it repeats itself over and over and over again. What is the story you are telling yourself?

Yes, and.

These are the magic words of improv. Life is nothing but improv isn’t it? Either-or thinking would end any improv. Using the words “Yes, and” expands it. There is no end if you use “Yes, and–” Either-or is limiting. “Yes, and–” is limitless. Yes, my project was denied and I’m working on something even better. Yes, my husband left me and the next chapter of my life is going to be magical. Yes, I lost the client and the next client is going to be even more fascinating. Keep the momentum going instead of coming to an unexpected halt with either-or thinking. Yes, and.

Perhaps the whole either-or thinking is based on perfection. There is no gray. It’s all black or white. Right or wrong. The main thing is that it is all a thought process and you are able to break out of that thought process. The default of binary thinking is just that – a default. Start focusing on the gray, the middle, the story, the “Yes, and.” Break out of the either-or trap. What either-or thinking do you get trapped in?

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