Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

‘Thanks For Reminding Me Not To Get Binary’

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 19, 2012

“Mixed feelings” I say to one of my students to explain the back and forth nature of a patient’s decision-making process. “One minute he wants to divorce his wife and the next minute they are planning to have a baby,” my student says in utter disbelief. “I just can’t stand Jessica,” my twenty-year old male patient says to me about his current girlfriend. “I think you have a lot of feelings about her,” I say, reminding him that there is an array of internal experiences going on in this moment. Immediately, he responds, “thanks for reminding me not to get binary,” he says, bringing in the computer age of ones or zeroes. Kleinian therapists call this splitting, when a person goes to extreme reactions without being able to experience the gray area. Tolerating confusion, this gray area, is psychologically challenging and uncomfortable, making it such that one has a tendency to think and/or act in a binary fashion, as if there are only two options. Idealization and devaluing are another example of this phenomena. “My mom is loved by all,” Bethany, fifty-two tells me, wanting me to understand what an amazing mother she has, despite the fact that I am aware how much Bethany’s mother fails to be sensitive to Bethany’s feelings. Creating a more nuanced narrative is the challenge of a deeper existence. Psychotherapy, like many art forms,  is one way to go there.

8 Responses to “‘Thanks For Reminding Me Not To Get Binary’”

  1. Shelly said

    But Shirah, that is how everyone experiences life: when we are happy we love our jobs and when we’re unhappy we hate them. Our minds always forget the times in between. We adore our boyfriends or we split with them–we don’t think about the middle of the road. Each of your patients are expressing their angst in their words. “My mom is loved by all,” Bethany says, but fails to say that her mother doesn’t consider her own daughter’s feelings. “I just can’t stand Jessica,” says your male patient, expressing frustration that she doesn’t treat him right. When we express frustration, don’t we use words like “always,” “never,” and other extremes (binaries)? There is no room for middle of the road when we are hurt.

    • jo said

      I don’t necessarily think that’s how everyone experiences life. I tend to live in the grey areas, on the fence, never able to pick an extreme (or make a decision). An example is when I was a child and my parents wouldn’t allow me to do something. I just couldn’t stay mad at them, because I could see their point of view. At the same time, my parents are a lot like me and didn’t like saying ‘No’ because they could see my point of view. And I never dated anyone that I didn’t continue to like after we broke-up (actually makes it a little messier, I think). Thanks.

      • Hi Jo,
        Thanks for your comments. I agree that not everyone experiences life in a binary fashion, but I think some people do, and others do when they are under stress. My hunch is that the fact you live in the gray area makes you, on the whole, less defensive in your interactions with others. Thanks again.

        • jo said

          Oh, I was just responding to Shelly’s comment that it’s how everyone experiences life — sorry for the confusion. I didn’t think you had implied that in your post at all. Also, I totally appreciated the binary reference!

          • Hi Again,
            Yes, I just edited my comment when I realized that. The internet is so much fun in that we can have this “conversation” in real time. Thanks for clarifying.

    • Hi Shelly,
      Yes, under stress, as I said in my response to Jo, one tends to go to extreme points of view and then over time, one usually balances it out with a more moderate viewpoint. Yes, there is a universal theme of a binary response to emotionally difficult situations, but the length of time and the intensity that one infuses into that binary point of view is where we differ. This difference is based on our personalities and our histories of previous upsetting events in our lives. Thanks.

  2. Yes….being in touch with “the gray area in the middle” is so so important to stay grounded..I’m not only always reminding myself of that but others as well… how vital it is to maintain an integrated balanced sense of self and to see others in shades of grays…not black or white, good or bad, all or nothing, etc. Good post Shirah. thanks!

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