You know that feeling when you’re studying for a test and you feel like you have to get an A or you’ve failed? Or when you go on a diet and you tell yourself that you can’t have even one bite of dessert? That’s all-or-nothing thinking, and it’s surprisingly common.
All-or-nothing thinking is when we see things in black-and-white terms, as either all good or all bad. There’s no middle ground, no room for error. And unfortunately, all-or-nothing thinking can actually make it harder to reach our goals.
All-or-nothing thinking is often the root cause of perfectionism, which can lead us to procrastinate or give up on our goals altogether. After all, if we’re convinced that we have to be perfect, why bother even trying?
But here’s the thing: nobody is perfect. And trying to be perfect is not only impossible, it’s also not necessary. In fact, all-or-nothing thinking can actually set us up for failure by setting unrealistic standards.
The all-or-nothing thinking makes things hard for us, and closes all doors for growth. So let’s hope on the journey of learning more about all-or-nothing thinking to stop the track of negativity in our life.
The Psychology Of All-Or-Nothing Thinking
Cognitive distortion is a term used to describe ways that our thinking can become distorted or biased, leading us to believe things that are not necessarily true. All-or-nothing thinking is one of the most common cognitive distortions.
All-or-nothing thinking is a type of thinking where people see things as either black or white, with no gray area in between. This type of binary thinking often leads to inaccurate perceptions of the world around us.
For example, someone with all-or-nothing thinking might see their performance at work as either a complete success or a complete failure, with no room for anything in between. This type of thinking is common in people with perfectionism and mental health disorders.
While all-or-nothing thinking can be helpful in some situations, it can also be harmful. When we only see things in black and white, we can miss out on the nuances and complexities of life.
All-or-nothing thinking can also lead to anxiety and depression, as we set unrealistic standards for ourselves and beat ourselves up when we don’t meet them.
The Link Between All-Or-Nothing Thinking And Mental Health Disorders
Some mental health disorders are characterized by all-or-nothing thinking, where people see things in black-and-white terms. This can make it difficult to cope with everyday life and can lead to negative consequences. Some disorders associated with all-or-nothing thinking include:
- OCD: People with OCD often have all-or-nothing thinking patterns, such as feeling that something is either completely clean or completely dirty. This can lead to excessive and unreasonable cleaning rituals.
- Depression: People with depression may believe that they are either good enough or worthless. This all-or-nothing thinking can lead to low self-esteem and difficulty enjoying activities that were once enjoyable.
- Eating disorders: People with eating disorders often have all-or-nothing thinking around food, body weight, and self-worth. For example, someone with anorexia may believe that they are only valuable if they are thin, while someone with bulimia may believe that they can only feel good if they purge after eating.
- Anxiety Disorders: All-or-nothing thinking is common in people with anxiety disorders. They often worry that if they don’t do something perfectly, it will turn out badly. For example, they may study for hours before a test because they’re afraid of getting a bad grade. Or, they may avoid social situations because they’re afraid of embarrassing themselves.
- PTSD: All-or-nothing thinking can also be a symptom of PTSD. People with PTSD often relive their trauma over and over again in their minds. They may believe that since the trauma was so bad, anything else would be even worse. As a result, they may avoid any situation that reminds them of the trauma.
- Personality Disorders: People with personality disorders also tend to think in all-or-nothing terms. For example, someone with borderline personality disorder may see people as all good or all bad. They may idealize someone at first, but then quickly turn against them when they feel betrayed. This type of thinking can make it hard for people with personality disorders to maintain stable relationships.
All-Or-Nothing Thinking: Examples In Real Life
Distorted Views About Self
This type of thinking can have a negative effect on our self-perception because it doesn’t allow for any shades of gray – everything is either one extreme or the other. This can lead us to feeling like we’re never good enough, because we’re only seeing ourselves in terms of all-or-nothing.
For example, if we miss a workout, we might think that we are lazy and undisciplined. This all-or-nothing thinking can lead us to miss out on the things that we are actually good at. We might not pursue our interests because we think we’re not good enough, or we might beat ourselves up because we didn’t meet our own high standards.
Or, if we get a B on a test, we might see that as a failure because it’s not an ‘A’. However, if we step back and look at the bigger picture, we can see that getting a ‘B’ is actually pretty good – it’s not failing, it’s succeeding at a high level.
All-or-nothing thinking doesn’t allow for this type of nuanced perspective, and as a result, it can negatively impact our self-perception.
Lack Of Motivation And Avoidance Behavior
With all-or-nothing thinking we tell ourselves that we have to be perfect, or else we’re failures. As a result, they may set unrealistic standards for themselves and feel discouraged when they are unable to meet these standards.
This kind of thinking creates a lot of pressure, which can lead us to give up before we even start. We become so focused on the end result that we don’t enjoy the process. And if we don’t enjoy the process, it’s hard to stay motivated. All-or-nothing thinking also leads to avoidance behavior.
For example, a person with all-or-nothing thinking might tell themselves, “I’m not going to work out unless I can do it for an hour.” This type of thinking can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and a belief that any effort is doomed to failure.
If we’re afraid we’ll fail, we’ll often avoid even trying.
We convince ourselves that it’s not worth it, because we might as well not even try if we’re just going to fail anyway. But this kind of thinking is self-defeating and counterproductive.
It keeps us from reaching our full potential and experiencing all the joy and satisfaction that comes from striving for excellence.
All-or-nothing thinking is a common cognitive distortion that can contribute to feelings of depression and hopelessness. This type of thinking pattern leads people to see events and situations as black-and-white, with no middle ground.
So, if something bad happens, they see it as a complete disaster, with no silver lining whatsoever. This all-or-nothing mindset can make it difficult to cope with setbacks and failure, leading to feelings of depression and despair.
Blame And Trauma
When a child experiences something traumatic, such as abuse or neglect, they may develop all-or-nothing thinking as a way of making sense of their experience. Additionally, all-or-nothing thinking can lead to feelings of shame, blame, and worthlessness – if someone sees themselves as a failure, they might believe that they are not worthy of love or respect.
All-or-nothing thinking is often linked to trauma. This is because when someone experiences trauma, they might see the world as being dangerous and unpredictable.
As a result, they might develop all-or-nothing thinking as a way to make sense of their experience and feel safer. Additionally, all-or-nothing thinking can be a way to avoid feeling pain by numbing out emotions.
For example, if someone only sees themselves as a success, they might not allow themselves to feel sadness or fear because those emotions might make them feel like a failure.
Problems With Relationships
All-or-nothing thinking can have a negative effect on our interpersonal relationships. This happens because all-or-nothing thinking can distort the way we view the relationship and the other person. When we view the relationship and the other person in black-and-white terms, it can lead to conflicts because we’re not seeing the whole picture.
We might expect our partner to be available 24/7, or expect ourselves to be able to handle all of our responsibilities perfectly all the time. When these expectations are not met, it can again lead to feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction.
All-or-nothing thinking can also make us feel like we’re either always right or always wrong, which can be a recipe for disaster in any relationship!
Identify If You’re Guilty Of All-Or-Nothing Thinking
You may be suffering from all-or-nothing thinking and don’t even know it. So in order to deal with the negative thought patterns of all-or-nothing thinking we have to identify it first. Some of the signs of all-or-nothing thinking include:
- Viewing events as all good or all bad, with no middle ground.
- Seeing yourself as either a success or a failure, with no room for improvement.
- Thinking in absolutes, such as “always” and “never”.
- Expecting perfection from yourself and others.
- Being unable to let go of mistakes or failures.
If you find yourself thinking in all-or-nothing terms, try to take a step back and look at the situation more objectively. Allowing yourself some flexibility and grace can help you to feel better about yourself and reduce stress in your life.
Effects Of All-Or-Nothing Thinking
This type of thinking can have a negative effect on your life in several ways. For one, all-or-nothing thinking can lead to excessive stress. If you’re constantly worrying that you’re not doing things perfectly, it’s tough to relax and enjoy yourself.
You may also find yourself setting unrealistic standards for yourself and others. When you can’t live up to these standards, you may feel like a failure.
All-or-nothing thinking can also make it hard to stick to healthy habits like eating right or exercising. If you “fall off the wagon,” so to speak, it can be tough to get back on track. After all, why bother if you’re just going to fail again? This type of thinking can also lead to depression and other mental health problems.
Some of the other ways all-or-nothing thinking affects us include;
- Decreased self-esteem.
- Losing self-compassion.
- Problem having to ask for help.
- Difficulty taking compliments.
- Inability to take risks.
- Low resilience.
- Lack of willingness to forgive oneself.
Break Free From All-Or-Nothing Thinking
Metacognition is the process of deliberately noticing and reflecting on your own thoughts and mental processes. It can be a powerful tool for overcoming all-or-nothing thinking. All-or-nothing thinking can lead to rigidity, perfectionism, and a lot of self-criticism.
It can also make it difficult to cope with setbacks or adapt to change.
Metacognition can help you to become more aware of all-or-nothing thinking patterns as they arise, and it can also help you to challenge and reframe these thoughts. For example, if you catch yourself thinking “I have to be perfect all the time,” you can stop and remind yourself that mistakes are part of being human. Everyone makes them, and they don’t have to define you.
2. Make Yourself Ready For Bad Days
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome when it comes to all-or-nothing thinking is bad days. We all have them – those days where everything seems to go wrong. And when we’re in the midst of a bad day, all-or-nothing thinking can take over and make us feel like we’re complete failures.
The good news is that there are things we can do to prepare for bad days and make them less likely to trigger all-or-nothing thinking. One of the most important things is to practice emotional regulation.
This means learning how to manage our emotions so that we don’t get overwhelmed by them. When we’re able to regulate our emotions, we’re less likely to let all-or-nothing thinking take over during a bad day.
Here are some other tips for preparing for bad days:
- Make a plan for how you’ll handle all-or-nothing thinking if it does come up. This could involve talking to a friend or therapist, journaling, or meditating.
- Fill your “emotional tank” regularly with positive activities and experiences. This will help you to weather the bad days when they do come up.
- Be kind to yourself! Remember that everyone has bad days, and you’re not a failure just because you had one.
3. Leave The Automatic Thought Loop
All-or-nothing thinking can be a real downer. You have a bad day at work and all of a sudden you’re a complete failure. You screw up on one test and you’re doomed to get a B in the class.
It can feel like everything is black and white, all or nothing.
The good news is that all-or-nothing thinking is just a habit. And like all habits, it can be broken. One way to do this is by re-labelling your thoughts. For example, if you’re having a thought like “I’m such a failure,” you can label it as “all-or-nothing thinking” and then challenge it.
This will help you to engage the reasoning part of your brain and stop making excuses. Additionally, try to be aware of all the gray areas in life and realize that things are often not as black and white as they seem.
It might seem like a small change, but it can make a big difference in your outlook. When you re-label your thoughts, you’re basically tricking your brain into thinking differently. And when you think differently, you act differently. So don’t be afraid to label those all-or-nothing thoughts for what they are: irrational and unhelpful.
4. Venture For New Perspective
In many cases, getting some perspective and venturing for new perspectives can help us to overcome this cognitive distortion. When you find yourself stuck in all-or-nothing thinking, try to look at things from a different angle.
For example, if you’re feeling down about not getting the job you wanted, talk to someone who knows you well and ask them to give you an honest appraisal of your skills and qualifications. Sometimes, all it takes is getting a new perspective to realize that all-or-nothing thinking is just distortions and exaggeration – and that life isn’t nearly as black and white as we often make it out to be.
By considering different points of view, we can start to see the world in a more nuanced way. We can learn to accept imperfection, and to appreciate the beauty in all types of people and situations.
When we are able to do this, all-or-nothing thinking starts to lose its hold on us. Instead, we are able to see the world with greater clarity and understanding.
5. Restructure Your Thoughts
If we’re afraid of failing, then we’ll never reach our full potential. So how can we overcome all-or-nothing thinking? The first step is to become aware of our thoughts and patterns of thinking. Once we’re aware of our all-or-nothing thinking, we can start to challenge it.
For example, if we’re beating ourselves up for making a mistake, we can remind ourselves that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s not the end of the world. We can also try to reframe our thoughts in a more positive light.
For instance, instead of thinking “I’m such a failure,” we can think “I’m learning and growing all the time.” By restructuring and reframing our thoughts, we can start to overcome all-or-nothing thinking and lead a happier, healthier life.
6. Be Compassionate Towards Yourself
Becoming more compassionate towards yourself can help you to overcome all-or-nothing thinking and start living a more balanced, healthy life. Here are some ways that self-compassion can help you to overcome all-or-nothing thinking:
- It allows you to accept yourself as you are, without judgement.
- It helps you to see mistakes and failures as part of the human experience, rather than as indicative of your worth as a person.
- It gives you the strength to keep going when things get tough, knowing that everyone goes through difficult times.
- It allows you to be more forgiving of yourself, which can lead to increased self-esteem and happiness.
- It can help you to let go of perfectionism, which is often at the root of all-or-nothing thinking.
If you’re struggling with all-or-nothing thinking, try practising self-compassion next time you make a mistake or feel like you’ve failed. See if it makes a difference in how you feel about yourself and your ability to cope with setbacks.
7. Embrace Yourself For Who You Are
All-or-nothing thinking is a form of black-and-white thinking that can lead to perfectionism and all sorts of other problems. It’s the kind of thinking that leads you to believe that if you’re not perfect, you’re a failure. But the truth is, nobody’s perfect.
And that’s okay! Accepting yourself for who you are is an important step in overcoming all-or-nothing thinking. Here’s why:
- All-or-nothing thinking is all about extremes. But by accepting yourself for who you are, you’re recognizing that you’re just human. You’re not perfect, and that’s okay!
- Accepting yourself for who you are means that you’re no longer striving for perfection. And that’s a good thing! Perfectionism is unrealistic and can lead to all sorts of problems, including anxiety, depression, and burnout.
- When you accept yourself for who you are, you’re also accepting your imperfections. And that’s a strength, not a weakness! Embracing your imperfections makes you more relatable, genuine, and authentic. People will be drawn to you because they can see that you’re just like them.
So go ahead and accept yourself for who you are! It’s an important step in overcoming all-or-nothing thinking.
8. Broaden Your Horizon
When we set our sights too high, we’re more likely to feel disappointed and discouraged when we don’t meet our goals. And, when we only see things in black and white, we may miss out on important details and context.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to overcome all-or-nothing thinking. One is to broaden our horizons and look for the gray area. This means recognizing that most things are complex and have many sides to them.
For instance, instead of thinking of ourselves as failures when we make a mistake, we can try to see our mistakes as learning opportunities. Or, instead of seeing someone as all good or all bad, we can acknowledge that everyone has both positive and negative qualities.
Another way to overcome all-or-nothing thinking is to focus on progress, not perfection. This means setting realistic goals for ourselves and celebrating even small accomplishments along the way. When we shift our focus from perfection to progress, we’re more likely to stay motivated and feel good about ourselves – even when we hit a few bumps in the road.
Broadening our horizons and looking for the gray area can help us overcome all-or-nothing thinking by making us more flexible in our thinking and more open to new perspectives. It can also help us set realistic goals for ourselves and focus on our accomplishments instead of dwelling on our shortcomings.
In short, it’s a helpful way to think about life – and one that can lead to more happiness and satisfaction in the long run.
All-or-nothing thinking can be a destructive force in our lives, leading us to believe that we are either complete successes or complete failures. This kind of thinking leads to black-and-white thinking, and can sets us up for disappointment when we don’t meet our own impossibly high standards.
It’s important to remember that life is full of gray areas, and that we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Comparing ourselves to others is also unhelpful, as everyone is on their own journey. Next time you find yourself engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, try to take a step back and see the situation for what it really is.
You may be surprised at how much more complex and nuanced it appears. Life is full of surprises, so try to keep an open mind and enjoy the ride! Thanks for reading.
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Shafran PhD, Department of Psychiatry Roz. (2010). Overcoming Perfectionism (Overcoming S) (UK ed.). Robinson Publishing.