All or nothing thinking is one of the many cognitive distortions that lead to mental health disorders and self-defeating behaviors. It’s when a person tends to think in extremes — for example, assuming that something is either perfect or a total failure.
Pursuing excellence is good, but perfectionism (looking at mistakes as a sign of personal defectiveness) decreases your personal happiness. Furthermore, it hinders your growth and success[*].
What is All-or-Nothing Thinking?
All-or-nothing thinking is also called “black and white thinking” or “dichotomous thinking,” according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. People who are perfectionists usually think this way. They’re unable to approach a situation from multiple alternatives or consider varieties.
Because of this, they may view themselves and situations more negatively, which contributes to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression[*].
In the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Sravanti Sanivarapu quotes, “Appreciating shades of grey brings one closer to the true colors and more often than not to the true color itself. This eventually helps one to stay connected with reality and at peace with oneself.”[*]
Signs of All-or-Nothing Thinking
Do you find yourself feeling anxious with the tiniest mistakes? Do you give up easily when things don’t turn out how you’d expected? If so, you might be an all-or-nothing thinker. Below are more signs to look out for:
- Using words like always, never, perfect, impossible, and failure.
- Refusing to start something unless you get everything right first or because you’re unsure of the outcome.
- Ignoring the positive aspects of something even when they’re there.
- Struggling to receive feedback from others.
- Being too hard on yourself or holding yourself to a standard of perfectionism.
Note that all-or-nothing thinking is also common (along with other faulty thought patterns) among people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Examples of All-or-Nothing Thinking
Here are some examples of all-or-nothing thinking to paint a better picture of this cognitive distortion:
Example 1: Job interview
Martin is about to get a job interview and he’s worried that he might forget what he’s going to say and that the interviewer won’t like him. During the interview, Martin answered one question incorrectly. As a result, he thought the whole interview was a failure, so he left without finishing the interview.
Example 2: Losing a job
Brian lost his job during the pandemic, along with other workers. Despite this loss, Brian still has other positive things in his life — good health, a loving family, and friends who can help him. However, Brian refuses to recognize them and tells himself, “My life is over.”
Example 3: Following a diet
Jennifer strives to avoid sugar and too many carbohydrates in her diet because she wants to lose weight. Recently, she went to a party where she ended up eating three cookies. This made Jennifer feel miserable, so she decided to overly restrict food and over-exercise the following day.
The Dangers of All-or-Nothing Thinking
Thinking in extremes can be detrimental to one’s health and well-being in many ways. It can prevent a person from taking risks in life, exploring new opportunities, overcoming their fears, learning, achieving their goals, and having good relationships with other people.
All-or-nothing thinking also creates a vicious cycle of perfectionism: setting impossibly high standards, getting overwhelmed, and feeling like a failure all the time.
How to Stop All-or-Nothing Thinking
The key is finding a middle ground in every scenario. Replacing self-defeating negative thoughts with realistic ones as part of cognitive behavioral therapy helps break this thinking habit.
1. Recognize your strengths.
Instead of focusing on what went wrong, give attention to what you’re good at. This will allow you to be kinder to yourself. For example, if you made a mistake during a performance, remind yourself of other things that went well and the fact that you did your best.
Here’s a worksheet that lets kids and teens identify and remind themselves of their unique strengths and which strengths they want to develop.
2. Expand your perspective by asking questions.
Learn to navigate through different options so you can be more understanding towards yourself and others. Asking these questions will help:
- What else is true about this situation? (This will challenge you to look at the facts)
- How do other people (and not just me) view this situation?
- What are other ways to solve this problem?
3. Catch yourself using all-or-nothing language.
Spotting negative self-talk in your everyday language takes practice, but it’s how you can start overcoming it. Here are examples:
- “I’m waiting for the perfect time to start eating right.”
- “I missed my workout this morning. My whole day is ruined.”
- “I always make poor decisions.”
Additionally, try identifying circumstances that lead you to think and speak to yourself negatively. Triggers can include stress at home, having too many tasks on your to-do list, and spending time on social media.
You may use this anxiety triggers worksheet to pinpoint things that cause you to worry and feel anxious.
4. Choose new thoughts.
Each time you catch yourself having distorted thoughts, gently correct yourself. For example, instead of saying “I always make stupid mistakes in school,” replace it with “I don’t need to be perfect” or “I can take steps to improve myself.”
This printable daily affirmations handout includes statements you can tell yourself to counteract all-or-nothing thoughts.
5. Reward yourself for progress, not perfection.
Having a mindset of progress and growth leads to the realization of your goals. It will also allow you to experience peace with yourself, health, happiness, and positive relationships.
One of the ways to embrace progress is to reward yourself for it. For example, if you worked through lunch time, reward yourself by stepping away and grabbing healthy food or taking a nap. If you have a child or teenager who needs ideas to reward themselves through self-care, here’s a self-care alphabet poster they can use.
All-or-nothing thinking categorizes people and situations into “good” or “bad” and can prevent you from viewing problems at different angles. Since life isn’t perfect, it creates unrealistic expectations, which cause problems in health, academic or work performance, and interpersonal relationships.
Overcoming this mindset is crucial for making progress, achieving your goals, and surviving tough times. Start applying the tips mentioned above and consider seeking advice from a mental health professional.
- Kelly J. Your Best Life: Perfectionism—The Bane of Happiness. 2015 April 03
- Sanivarapu S. Black & white thinking: A cognitive distortion. 2015 January-March