The short blanket dilemma, when we have to choose between two negative options

It has probably happened to you on more than one occasion. You are cold, so you pull the blanket to cover your head, but in doing so your feet are exposed. Soon you feel cold again, so you go back to adjusting the blanket, but by covering your feet, you expose your head. It's frustrating.

The short blanket dilemma is an intuitive theory that it is impossible to cover the head and feet at the same time because the blanket is not long enough. Therefore, we are forced to choose between two possibilities, but neither of them fully satisfies us.

The problem begins when we apply that kind of reasoning to life's most complex conflicts and assume - or make us believe - that we only have two options and that we have to decide between them, even if they are bad or unsatisfactory.

A permanent condemnation of dissatisfaction and frustration

In the dilemmas of the short blanket the two possibilities we have are imposed; that is, they usually arise from external limitations. The world presents us with obstacles and presents us with two unsatisfactory solutions. None of the alternatives are the result of deep reflection, but rather of a limitation. Therefore, whatever solution we choose, it will become a source of frustration.

Since neither option really satisfies the underlying need, it is understandable that the frustration continues to grow. Just choosing the least bad option doesn't leave us with a good taste in our mouth. Rather, it will cause us to continually look back to reconsider our steps.

For this reason, many short-blanket problems tend to generate doubts and regrets. We wonder what would have happened if we had chosen the other option. Would we have been just as unhappy? When these doubts extend to the important aspects of our life, it is difficult for us to feel satisfied and at peace with our decisions.

Thought trapped in the vicious circle of duality

One of the main pitfalls that the short-blanket dilemmas set us is to enclose our thinking in a scheme in which there are only two solutions. They become a limit that prevents us from contemplating any solution that goes beyond the strict limits established.

In fact, exposing the dilemmas of the short blanket is a fairly common social manipulation strategy. It is normal that we are given only two solutions to choose from. Right or left? Health or economy? Development or minor contamination?

The problem is that we consume so many cognitive resources to weigh the pros and cons of the two predetermined solutions that we forget to look further to find an alternative path. Perhaps the alternative we would find would not be ideal, but at least it could be more practical or satisfying than the initial two possibilities.

Other times we are the ones who create and fall into this false dilemma. Sometimes we are so caught up in the problem or blinded by emotions that we are unable to see beyond the obvious possibilities. These types of situations can lead us to consider false dichotomies. We may think, for example, that we can only decide between maintaining an unsatisfactory relationship or breaking up and being alone forever.

When emotions take over, we don't think clearly and tend to seek extreme and opposite solutions. In practice, the dilemmas of the short blanket lock our thinking in a very small box. They feed a dichotomous way of thinking in terms of good or bad, black or white, positive or negative. Blind to other possibilities, we are unable to explore alternative solutions, so we choose to follow the script that others have written for us or that we have imposed on ourselves.

Break the mold

“Sometimes we are excessively willing to believe that the present is the only possible state of affairs”, wrote Marcel Proust. To escape the short blanket effect, we need to stop thinking that there are only two solutions.

Instead it is much more constructive to tell us that, so far, we have only seen the two most obvious solutions or the two alternatives that someone has proposed to us, but that does not mean that there are no other avenues to explore.

To solve the short blanket problem we need to change our approach. We may not be able to stretch the blanket, but we can assume a fetal position to better cover ourselves. We can also use a second blanket. Or wear thicker socks.

The key is to be aware that our problem may be the length of the blanket, but the need to be satisfied is to protect ourselves from the cold. By changing the objective on which to focus, we emerge from the seemingly insurmountable dichotomy to find a more satisfying solution to the real underlying need.

Sometimes we just have to look beyond the problem or conflict. When we focus on the need, without predetermined answers - or overcoming them - we can discover a wider range of solutions that may be more satisfying and appropriate to our circumstances.

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