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Overcoming All-Or-Nothing Thinking (A Cognitive Distortion)

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Thank you for stopping by for my ongoing positive self-talk seriesSelf-love starts with positive self-talk, and all of that starts with you.  Shifting the way that you think requires the ability to recognize the power of your thoughts.  You can learn to love yourself by changing what you think about yourself and how you talk with yourself.   

We all struggle from time to time with cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking.  You know the healthiest person will struggle with a little cognitive distortion here and a little exaggeration there.  Doing this here and there won’t impact your mental state in the short term.  However, when you start to do it constantly and become your everyday thinking style, your mental health will suffer. 

What does all-or-nothing thinking look like?

This is sometimes called “black-or-white” or polarized thinking, meaning you think in the extremes.  This extreme thinking pattern supports an overly rigid outlook on life. Because of this overly rigid outlook, you can’t see things in shades of grey or between the extremes.

This type of thinking is common in people that struggle with anxiety, depression, low self-worth, self-criticism, body image, and eating disorders.  All of these can be tied to perfectionism and hopelessness.     

Here are some examples of all-or-nothing thinking. 

Because I’m not perfect, then I’m nothing at all.” 

“Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” 

“It’s either good, or it’s bad.” 

“Go big or go home.” 

How all-or-nothing thinking can be harmful. 

It focuses your attention and thoughts on what is not going right and sets you up to see the bad in situations, people, and yourself. As a result, you end up missing out on all the good things there are to see.      

How to know if you are using all-or-nothing thinking in your life. 

You might be if…

  • You are uncomfortable with shades of grey and need things to be clear cut, straight to the point and “black and white.” 

The use of absolutes: always, never, everyone, no one, every time, none of the time, etc. 

“You always do this…”

“You never do that….”

“Everyone is…”

“No one ever….”

“Every time I….”

“None of the time(s)….”

There are a lot more absolutes out there.  Take a moment and think about some of the words that use.  Are any of them absolutes? 

How to get out and overcome all-or-nothing thinking. 

  • I.C.E. – and I’m not talking about “in case of emergency.” 

I’m talking about…

Identify the thought. 

Call it what it is – a cognitive distortion or all-or-nothing thinking. 

Explore a new thought to replace it with. 

  • Separate self-worth from performance – Strive for progress not perfection and get away from the shame dance.

Check out Daring Greatly by Brene Brown Ph.D. [affiliate].  It’s an exceptionally well-written book all about perfectionism, shame, how it has shaped our lives, and ways to get your life back.    

Daring Greatly book by Brene' Brown Ph.D

  • Introduce shades of grey into your vocabulary – sometimes, perhaps, maybe, at times, etc. 

Let me know your thoughts and what strategies have worked for you for overcoming all-or-nothing thinking. 

If you are interested in a more comprehensive view of all-or-nothing thinking, check out my much longer article below.   

how-to-tackle-black-and-white-thinking
Black and White – All-or-Nothing Thinking

A more comprehensive view

All-or-Nothing Thinking is a Cognitive Distortion

Shifting the way you think requires recognizing the power of your thoughts and how they guide your actions and interactions with the world around us.  To better understand how thoughts influence you, it helps to understand how thoughts influence emotions.  And, of course, how your emotions influence how you feel about yourself in your world. 

In many ways, this is about undoing many negative behaviors and programming that you have learned. 

Below you will find common ways people will engage in all–or–nothing thinking. Making a mental shift offers you the opportunity to choose to do something about it.   

All-or-Nothing thinking is seeing things in terms of black or white with little to no shades of grey.  An example of this is viewing yourself as a failure if you fall short of “perfect,” this is also a defense mechanism because it is a cognitive distortion.

            Cognitive – how you think or perceive.

            Distortion – inaccurate, misleading, or irrational. 

Examples of this type of cognitive distortion may look like:

  • Because I can’t give this 100% of my time and attention then it will never work out. 
  • If I feel overwhelmed by doing this then I shouldn’t do it until I have more (insert word here). 
  • What if I can’t do it perfectly this first time and deciding that you shouldn’t do it at all. 

Do you find yourself thinking that you have to be all-in, or it will never work out to start something?  If you find yourself feeling anxious when you have this “all-in” thought, then your largest roadblock currently in your way is your mindset. 

What if you could change that?  What if you could find the middle ground or a shade of grey to operate in?  How might that impact your anxiety? 

What is all-or-nothing thinking?

Seeing things in terms of absolutes. This would be black-or-white, good or bad, right or wrong, with no shades of gray.

Typically, with all-or-nothing thinking, there is the use of absolutes.  If this is not the perfect time to start something hard, this is not the right time. For instance, concluding that if I cannot dedicate 100% of my time to something, then it is completely pointless trying.

The fact is, almost all of us are not able to dedicate 100% of our time, energy, or efforts to anything – not even ourselves. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that to start something, it can only be started at the perfect time. Then you will spend your life waiting for that perfect time – only to never start.  The truth is, there is never going to be a “perfect” time to do something.      

The tragedy of experiencing all-or-nothing thinking is that it creates a prison in your mind.  Where you want to move forward, but the unpredictability of the shades of grey keeps the prison in place.  Leaning into the shades of grey does not happen by ignoring your discomfort but by understanding it and paying attention to it.  By being gentle and honest with yourself, can you move closer to the grey?  By exploring the thoughts that have created the black-or-white or the all-or-nothing thinking.  How does this keep you stuck in a place of uncomfortable familiarity?  What attracts you to these thoughts, what repels you from the grey, and what are you telling yourself?     

The dangers of all-or-nothing thinking

When you try to do anything that requires effort or change, black-or-white or all-or-nothing thinking will derail your efforts faster than almost anything else.  One minute you feel like you are on fire and ready to do this, and then the next moment, something happens – like life.  Perhaps, in these moments, you see your ability to change through this lens that you decide to heck with it.  You’ll try again later when the timing is right or when you can dedicate 100% of yourself to this. 

  • You are setting yourself up for certain failure. 

If what you are attempting to do falls anywhere but perfect, flawless, or effortless, it is a failure and no longer worth pursuing. 

  • The pressure is absolutely crushing.

The unrealistic expectations or understanding of what it will take to accomplish this change will bind us as certainly as the strongest chains will. 

  • A vicious cycle of starting, stopping, starting, and stopping again.

At its core, it is self-sabotage.  You either never start because it never feels like the right time.  Or you get caught up in the cycle of throwing your hands up and stopping the moment it gets a little rough.  To find yourself sitting in the uncomfortable familiarity of feeling stuck.         

So where can this lead you?

Piece of wood with rings on it listing the consequences of all-or-nothing thinking: stress, memory problems, seeing only the negative, worrying etc...
Consequences of All-or-Nothing thinking
  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Low self-esteem
  4. Self-criticism
  5. Struggling with body image
  6. Eating disorders

Steps to get you out of the trap of all-or-nothing thinking.

It’s difficult to break the chains that bind you without understanding how they bind you in the first place.  The links of these chains are created by your own thoughts, emotions, and actions. 

  1. Thoughts impact the emotions that we experience, and we use this information to inform our actions. 
  2. Emotions impact how we think about ourselves and our place in our world, and we use this information to guide our actions.
  3. Actions impact how we think and feel about ourselves and inform our future actions. 

Classic scenario of all-or-nothing thinking

Many of us have been here before. So we decide to start a fitness routine, whether to lose weight, get in shape or whatever the half-a-dozen reasons. 

So, you grab whatever equipment or workout gear you need to make it happen. 

DAY 1 – You hit the ground running (maybe literally), and it feels great, and you feel pumped like you can do this.  You eat like you are supposed to and are upping your water intake.  Doing everything that you are supposed to be doing “perfectly.” 

DAY 2 – Much like day 1.  You’re going strong and really feel like you can do this- this time.  

A few days or possibly weeks go by, and then something happens.  You have a rough day and find yourself on the couch with a tub of ice cream and the biggest spoon you own (you know the one – typically, you use it for cooking). Then, perhaps, you find yourself thinking, “I completely screwed up – there’s no point in working out tomorrow.”  Before you know it, four weeks have gone by, and you still haven’t worked out. 

Life is really good at throwing curveballs.  Here are the 13 steps needed to navigate those curve balls and keep yourself from falling into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking. 

Learn to spot it

Either life is going perfect, or it’s a total disaster.  You’re either awesome or awful.  This is going really well, or it’s just not worth the effort.  You can either do this perfectly or not at all.  You’ll either look perfect, or you won’t go. 

Describe the situation to yourself

The automatic thoughts that pop into your head describe the events in black and white or all-or-nothing thinking.  Are you telling yourself that you are a failure and will fail your class because you received feedback on improving an essay – even though overall you’re an “A” student? 

Capture the stories that you are telling yourself

The story that I am telling myself is…

What is it that you are telling yourself?  Are you telling yourself that anything less than perfect is unacceptable?  Are you telling yourself that your worth and ability to accomplish things ride on this one event?  What are the stories that you are telling yourself?

challenging-thoughts-all-or-nothing-thinking
All-or-Nothing Thinking – A cognitive distortion

Pinpoint your emotions

What emotions are coming up for you?  Is it fear, frustration, uncertainty, angst, annoyance, anger, shame, guilt, hopelessness, sadness, dread, or something else or even unknown?

Pinpoint where you feel your emotions in your body

This can be very informative. For example, where do you feel certain emotions?  Do you feel them in your chest?  In your gut?  Do you feel them as tension in your muscles?  Do you find yourself breathing differently when you experience different emotions?  When you know where you feel emotions, you can sometimes identify what emotion you feel based on where you feel.     

Describe how your emotions are influencing your thoughts

It is easier to identify the thought and then the emotion for many.  It can be easier to identify the emotion and then the thought for others.  Either way, they influence each other.  An intense emotion leads to an intense thought.  If you can lessen the intensity of one, it can lessen the intensity of the other. 

Be curious

By being curious, you can expand your thinking beyond the black-or-white of good or bad, right or wrong, by being curious and willing to challenge the ways you have always thought.  By recognizing that these thought patterns are well-practiced and in need of changing, you can begin to be curious by asking yourself.

  1. Are my expectations realistic?
  2. Am I too hard on myself?
  3. Is this thought helpful or harmful?
  4. Are there other ways that I can think of this?
  5. What assumptions am I making?
  6. What are the positives or progress that I have not noticed?
  7. Am I falling for the unattainable desire for perfection? 
  8. Am I making myself more anxious than necessary?  

Expand your thinking to the shades of grey

Profile of a human form in front of an analog clock depicted with colorful cogs and wheels that are not black-or-white
Life is about shades and not black-and-white.

Expanding your thinking and language to include shades of grey instead of being based on absolutes.  Life does not have to be really good or a total disaster.  It can be going well with some ups and downs.  You do not have to be awesome or awful.  You can be much like your life – doing well with ups and downs.  Things can go well and be a struggle next and still be worth the effort of doing it.  Perhaps things do not have to be perfect, and perhaps the greatest opportunity is allowing yourself to try and improve.  Perfection is based on your perception, and does this allow you to do and reach for the things you want?       

Allow for contradictions

Two opposites can be true.  You do not need to choose one extreme over the other.  You can look confident and feel nervous at the same time.  Your job can be fulfilling and frustrating all at the same time.  You can struggle to make a change and take a break when you need to.  You can work hard and recharge in fun and meaningful ways. 

Find the exceptions/positives/partial successes 

Instead of sorting your endeavors or attempts into two categories: successes and failures, try re-sorting your “failures” into a new category of partial successes. 

Partial successes are the times when you achieved any measure of success before you became derailed.  The difference between people who give up after they fail and those that get back up and try again is their mindset.  Those that try again are more inclined to view their “failure” as a partial success. This is because they learned what they needed to from that partial success to try again.

Don’t let your mistakes or “failures” define you

All you are doing when you let your failure define you are beating yourself up.  And all that does is encourage you not to try again because you do not want to beat yourself up again.  If you really want to break out of that vicious cycle, you need to choose a new way to view the situation.   

Choose a new way to view the situation  

Putting it all together.  Now that you know how you are engaging in all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking.  What are you going to do about it?  How are you describing the situation to yourself, and is it accurate or just one-sided?  What is the story you are telling yourself, and more importantly, why are you telling yourself it?  What are the emotions coming up, and where are you feeling them?  How are your emotions influencing your thoughts or the other way around? 

Are you willing to challenge what you have discovered?  Are you curious enough to look at the situation differently and perhaps use different language to include shades of grey?  Allow yourself to acknowledge contradictions and encourage yourself to recognize your partial successes. Finally, decide to break out of the vicious cycle of beating yourself up for anything less than perfection and total success.         

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