All-or-nothing thinking is the destructive art of ignoring life’s nuances. More simply, it’s thinking in extremes. Some people call it black and white thinking or absolutist thinking. Pacific CBT, an organization that specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, identifies it as a thought pattern that whittles every scenario down to two rival options. Hence, all or nothing. Black or white. Good or bad. It prevents people from exploring the grey area and can lead to anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
If you experience all-or-nothing thinking, you are not alone. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles says all-or-nothing thinking is classified as a cognitive distortion, or a conclusion made based on little to no evidence. It is one of the most common cognitive distortions people experience. I myself have been told by different therapists that I consistently gravitate to extremes. So, you’re in good company.
Why is all-or-nothing thinking detrimental?
All-or-nothing thinking prevents us from growing, adapting and generally enjoying anything that isn’t perfect. It oversimplifies life by separating everything into two categories: good or bad, success or failure, perfect or terrible. Since literally no one is perfect, all-or-nothing thinking tends to land us into those negative categories.
Absolutist thinkers see themselves as failures if they make even a tiny error. Ashley Thorn of 4Points Family Therapy tells Psych Central that this removes any opportunity to celebrate small successes or learn from mistakes. When the positive outcome is an absolute, like perfection, anything negative forces us to classify the whole operation as a failure. This is why a black and white thought pattern is so closely linked with anxiety and depression (and consequently, low self-esteem and a lack of motivation).
An example often used to illustrate all-or-nothing thinking is a job interview. An all or nothing thinker will leave a job interview focusing on the one moment they faltered, concluding the whole experience was a bust because of a single flub. A nuanced thinker will leave the job interview focusing on both the positive moments and the rough patches, recognizing the entire episode as a learning experience. Sure, I didn’t handle the question about weaknesses very well, but I really nailed the questions about past experience. Not good or bad, but good and bad.
Extreme, absolutist thoughts not only stunt our personal growth; they hamper our ability to see the silver lining or bounce back after a stumble. On top of everything, they deprive us of the beautiful, weird and subtle varieties of life!
6 tell-tale signs of all-or-nothing thinking
If you notice your inner thoughts doing any of the following—or you start speaking in these extremes—you may be an all or nothing thinker.
1. You use superlatives
Words like always and never lead directly to black and white conclusions. “I always screw this up,” or “No one will ever talk to me again,” are examples.
2. You give up easily
Setting goals is great! Bailing after one slip up is not. If you planned to do Dry January, but you gave in to a glass of Champagne to celebrate your mom’s retirement, you didn’t ruin the entire month.
3. You experience low self-esteem
When you constantly see yourself as either an expert or an idiot, chances are your self-esteem is going to take a major hit. We can’t all be experts in everything.
4. You experience anxiety
Same deal here. When a tiny misstep means absolute failure, planning or prepping for anything increases anxiety. Plus, after the fact, anxiety skyrockets because we’re focusing on the negative.
5. You procrastinate and/or don’t feel motivated
Why even begin when there’s a chance something will go wrong? All or nothing thinkers often refuse to start because they aren’t 100 percent sure the outcome will be 100 percent perfect.
6. You ignoring the good things
An inability to be grateful for what you do have or recognize the bright moments amidst the dark ones is a sign of black and white thinking.
How to break the all-or-nothing habit
Like any cognitive habit, it is possible to wean yourself off of all-or-nothing thinking. It takes time, but once you move past seeing in black and white, the world opens up to a whole host of colorful possibilities. The key is constantly reminding yourself there are more than two outcomes for just about any situation.
1. Take note
Recognize every time all-or-nothing thinking pops up. You don’t even have to do anything about it right away. Just nod at it and call it what it is.
2. Replace “or” with “and”
An experience can be good and bad (have you seen Inside Out?). Rather than labeling an experience as good or bad, try finding both qualities.
3. Identify emotions
After an experience, identify all of the emotions you felt while you were in it. This can help illustrate the variety in everyday moments. It’s possible to feel excited, scared, hopeful and proud all at once - which proves life is not just one thing or another.
4. Write down your strengths and weaknesses
Just like an experience, you yourself can be good at some things and bad at others. It doesn’t mean you are a total success or a total failure. You might be a great chef, but a not-so-great Scrabble player. That doesn’t mean every dish you cook will be perfect, nor does it mean you should stop playing Scrabble.
5. Embrace mistakes
This is tricky, especially for us perfectionists, but recalibrate your brain so it interprets a mistake as a learning opportunity. Easier said than done, but truly a solid method for improving skills and being kinder to yourself.
6. List out facts vs. assumptions vs. possibilities
Write down what you know for a fact. Write down what you think you know or what you assume could be true. Then, write down what could possibly be true. Go wild with these possibilities.
When in doubt, know you aren’t alone in your all-or-nothing thinking—and don’t let it hold you back!