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Key Takeaways:

  • All-or-nothing thinking is when a person thinks in extreme opposites without looking at other possibilities.
  • All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion, which is a faulty or inaccurate way of thinking.
  • All-or-nothing thinking is associated with various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Sometimes, we struggle with thinking in black-and-white terms. We may believe that people are inherently good or evil or that we are either failures or successes, with little room for what’s in between. However, this all-or-nothing mindset can be more detrimental than we realize. Here, we’ll discuss all-or-nothing thinking and illustrate the concept with some examples before we go into how you can manage it more effectively.

What is All-or-Nothing Thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking is when a person thinks in extreme opposites and fails to accept the possibilities that lie between those extremes. It is one of the many cognitive distortions that lead to mental health disorders and self-defeating behaviors. The APA Dictionary of Psychology also uses the terms “black-and-white thinking” or “dichotomous thinking” to describe all-or-nothing thinking.

All-or-Nothing Thinking Examples

Some situations may cause people to think in extremes. Consider the following examples:

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.

Other common examples include the following:

  • A day with a rough patch is ruined
  • People grow up to be either good or bad
  • A person who forgets their anniversary doesn’t love their partner
  • Friends will always be on your side no matter what
  • If it rains, it’s no longer safe to drive at all

People who are perfectionists usually think this way. For example, a person may assume something is perfect or a total failure. 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 [*].

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 [*].

Signs of All-or-Nothing Thinking

Do you find yourself feeling anxious about the tiniest mistakes? Do you give up easily when things don’t turn out as 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).

Causes of All-or-Nothing Thinking

\While experiencing black-and-white thinking sometimes is normal in life, it could also be a sign of something more serious. There may not be a single root cause for all-or-nothing thinking, but it is commonly associated with the following conditions:

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Impact on Mental Health

All-or-nothing thinking can have a significant impact on mental health in various ways:

  • Increased stress and anxiety. All-or-nothing thinking tends to create a heightened sense of urgency and pressure. When individuals believe that outcomes are either perfect or a complete failure, they may experience increased stress and anxiety about achieving unrealistic standards.
  • Perfectionism. All-or-nothing thinking is often associated with perfectionistic tendencies. People may set unrealistically high standards for themselves, leading to chronic feelings of dissatisfaction and self-criticism.
  • Low self-esteem. Individuals engaging in all-or-nothing thinking might struggle with self-esteem because they evaluate their worth based on extreme criteria. Perceiving oneself as a complete success or failure can contribute to a negative self-image.
  • Difficulty coping with setbacks. All-or-nothing thinkers may struggle to cope with setbacks or failures. Since they view situations in extreme terms, any minor setback can be perceived as a catastrophic failure, leading to feelings of hopelessness and despair.
  • Strained relationships. Dichotomous thinking can affect interpersonal relationships. People engaging in this type of thinking may have unrealistic expectations of others, leading to frustration and disappointment when those expectations are not met.
  • Rigidity and inflexibility. All-or-nothing thinking can contribute to rigid thinking patterns, making it difficult for individuals to adapt to changes or see alternative perspectives. This can hinder problem-solving skills and flexibility in dealing with life's challenges.
  • Impact on decision-making. Individuals prone to all-or-nothing thinking may struggle with decision-making. They may feel paralyzed by the fear of making a "wrong" choice and not recognizing that there are often multiple valid options.

How to Manage All-or-Nothing Tendencies

The key is finding a middle ground in every scenario. Replacing self-defeating negative thoughts with realistic ones as part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps break this thinking habit while regulating emotions.

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 different options to 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 lunchtime, 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.

You can also use tools such as CBT worksheets to help manage all-or-nothing thinking tendencies at home.

When to Seek Professional Help

If all-or-nothing thinking has started to affect your daily routine and is causing issues with normal day-to-day functioning, then it may be time to seek professional help. Consider contacting a mental health professional if you are bothered by thinking in extremes often.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about all-or-nothing thinking:

Are there specific cognitive distortions associated with all-or-nothing thinking?

Yes. Cognitive distortions such as overgeneralizations, catastrophizing, and should-statements are all associated with all-or-nothing thinking.

Can all-or-nothing thinking contribute to mental health issues?

All-or-nothing can exacerbate various mental health conditions, including anxiety, to which it is closely linked.

How does perfectionism relate to all-or-nothing thinking?

Perfectionism means that you are not allowed to make mistakes or have unsolved problems, and things are only good enough when they are perfect. It is a type of all-or-nothing thinking that can lead to depression due to past mistakes and anxiety about future performance at school or work.

The Bottom Line

In summary, conquering all-or-nothing thinking is key to fostering mental resilience. By recognizing and challenging this cognitive distortion, you can pave the way for balanced perspectives. Embracing flexibility and employing the practical strategies discussed above empowers a healthier mindset. Remember, life's intricacies are seldom black and white; finding the shades of gray leads to a more fulfilling and adaptable approach to challenges. As Sravanti Sanivarapu quotes in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, “Appreciating shades of gray 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 [*].”

References:

  1. Sanivarapu S. Black & white thinking: A cognitive distortion. 2015.
  2. Kelly J. Your Best Life: Perfectionism—The Bane of Happiness. 3 April 2015.
  3. Sanivarapu S. Black & white thinking: A cognitive distortion. 2015.

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