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Understanding and Overcoming All-or-Nothing Thinking

Learning to live in the gray of life.

Key points

  • All-or-nothing thinking sees the world in absolutes, usually only two: good or bad.
  • In reality, most things in life are not all good or all bad.
  • All-or-nothing thinking is a key component of perfectionism.
  • Learning to let go of all-or-nothing thinking is key for well-being.

Of all the cognitive distortions that cognitive behavioral therapy targets, one of the most common I see is all-or-nothing thinking. This distortion involves seeing the world, one’s self, and the future in absolutes; something is either perfect or incredibly terrible. All-or-nothing thinking is sometimes called black-or-white thinking and the antidote is to learn to think in the grays, to reconcile that something can be both positive and negative.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

All-or-nothing thinking is also a big part of perfectionism. Perfectionism requires no mistakes, no slip-ups, and no unsolved problems. Something has to be perfect or it’s not good enough.

This type of all-or-nothing thinking can lead to depression because of past mistakes and anxiety about future performance at school or work. Perfectionism also does not reflect reality. Nobody is perfect and nothing is perfect; but it can be great, mediocre, or even excellent.

Within therapy, there are many examples of all-or-nothing thinking. Often these combine with other cognitive distortions such as should statements, magnification/minimization, and overgeneralization.

  1. “I’m a horrible worker because I messed up that report.” People with depression can magnify or overgeneralize from a single mistake. Their abilities or performance is either perfect or terrible, not in between.
  2. “She’s a terrible person because she won’t do what I want.” People who struggle with anger towards others sometimes experience all-or-nothing thinking. They sometimes think others should always or never do something and then overgeneralize when the other person sets a boundary or makes a mistake.
  3. “I had a cookie, so my diet is ruined. I should just eat whatever I want.” For people trying to be healthier, a common stumbling block is thinking they have to be perfect. This can then lead to people forgoing their diet, exercise, or sleep regimen instead of trying to start over after a slip.

Another example of all-or-nothing thinking is harm reduction. Harm reduction involves reducing the impact of harmful behaviors or events when they can’t be eliminated or stopped.

For example, ideally, we would have no car crashes, but cars are still manufactured to reduce the injuries from crashes when they do occur. Both eliminating car crashes and limiting the harm of crashes can be targeted at the same time.

Another example is what we call health behaviors. Health behaviors are actions people take that hurt or help their physical and mental health. These can be negative, such as smoking cigarettes or drinking too much alcohol, or positive, like eating a healthy diet. Taking an all-or-nothing approach would only consider complete abstinence from tobacco smoking a success. A harm reduction approach would consider someone smoking fewer cigarettes a success.

How to Push Back Against All-or-Nothing Thinking

Counteracting all-or-nothing thinking can be challenging. But one effective technique is to simply notice it. This cognitive distortion usually sorts the world into two categories—good or bad—so it can be easy to notice once you start looking.

Another technique is to come up with an alternative that considers both the positive and negative of the situation. For example, someone might have thought, “I need to either stay home from work the entire day if I’m in pain or work the entire day.” But people with chronic pain might be able to be active for part of the day and then need to rest. An alternative, more realistic thought could be, “I can work a few hours when my pain flares and need to rest after that.” I like to think of this process as seeing the gray in the world.

All-or-nothing thinking is not limited to just depression or anxiety. It can play a role in all sorts of emotions such as anger and can affect people’s behavior. Replacing all-or-nothing thinking can be hard but is worth the effort.