Are you an all-or-nothing thinker? Perhaps you see yourself as a success or a failure, attractive or disgusting, smart or stupid. And you see others as with you or against you, right or wrong, thoughtful or selfish.
Seeing things as absolutes, black or white with no shades of gray in between, can leave you feeling stuck – unmotivated, unable to start new projects, pursue your goals, or even recognize your progress.
What is all-or-nothing thinking?
All-or-nothing thinking is a common type of cognitive distortion. This just means that your thinking has gotten twisted up and is based on inaccurate information or assumptions.
All-or-nothing thinking is often based on things we were told as children, which we’ve accepted as facts, reinforced, and internalized. These false or overgeneralized messages become our beliefs about ourselves and the world – and they tend to be overly negative and critical.
Here’s an example of how this might work:
As a child, Paul struggled in school. English class was particularly difficult and he hated to read. His parents were always on his case about his poor grades. They compared him to his sister who got straight A’s and his mother frequently lost her temper and called him “dumb” and “lazy”. In his 20’s, Paul was diagnosed with dyslexia. However, despite now knowing that a learning disability, not stupidity or laziness, were the cause of his poor performance in school, Paul still calls himself stupid when he makes any type of mistake.
Paul’s experience with an undiagnosed learning difference and the negative and inaccurate things his parents said to him, led him to believe that he’s not as smart as everyone else.
Paul has divided people into only two categories – smart and stupid. He sees things as absolutes, rather than seeing all the things in between these two extremes. And as a result, he’s unfairly labeled himself as stupid.
What does all-or-nothing thinking look like for you?
Perhaps you use all-or-nothing thinking to evaluate yourself or others:
Your life is either going perfectly or it’s a disaster.
If you can’t eat “clean” all the time, you quit and dig into the M&M’s.
If your mother-in-law can’t babysit because she has plans with a friend, you think she’s selfish.
And when you forget your boss’s birthday, you feel like a loser, certain you’re the stupidest, most forgetful person ever.
Take a minute now to identify what your all-or-nothing thinking sounds like.
The problem with all-or-nothing thinking
The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is it’s unrealistic; it’s rigid and it demands perfection.
When you use all-or-nothing thinking, you’re judging yourself and others unfairly. If you only see two extreme categories, most people and experiences will be sorted into the lesser category – because they’re imperfect. All-or-nothing thinking focuses on mistakes and flaws and discounts strengths, accomplishments, and effort. It tells us that if we can’t do something perfectly, it’s not worth doing.
How to change your all-or-nothing thinking
As you can see, all-or-nothing thinking creates unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. And this can cause us to be harsh and critical of ourselves and others. All-or-nothing thinking commonly plagues perfectionists and is a hallmark of anxiety and depression.
So, how do we change all-or-nothing thinking? Here are 6 ways to get started.
1) Look for the positives.
We have a proclivity to notice and remember negatives in our lives – mistakes, bad news, disappointments, times things didn’t go as planned. This negativity bias is the reason you’re likely to remember the one time you were late to an important meeting, but not the dozens of times you were on time. This leads to all-or-nothing thinking such as “I’m always late” and probably a string of self-critical statements berating yourself for something that isn’t even true. It takes effort, but you can train yourself to notice the positives in your life – the effort you make, new things you learn, things you like about yourself and others, and simple pleasures and enjoyments that make your life better.
2) Be curious.
We can expand our thinking beyond dichotomies such as good or bad, right or wrong, by being curious and challenging our all-or-nothing thinking. These distorted thought patterns tend to be well-practiced and usually not even in our awareness, so we need to start by noticing them. Then, when you notice that your all-or-nothing thinking, you can ask yourself some questions to challenge it and see if there are some other ways you can look at things. You might ask yourself:
- Are my expectations realistic?
- Am I being too hard on myself (or someone else)?
- Is this thought helpful?
- Is there another way I can think about this?
- Am I making assumptions?
- Are there positives or progress that I’m not noticing?
- Is perfectionism at work here?
3) Expand your thinking and look for the “shades of gray”.
Since all-or-nothing thinking is based on absolutes and unrealistic expectations, try to avoid using words such as always, never, all, every, should, must, and ought. And think beyond words like success, failure, good, and bad and see if you can come up with more accurate descriptors that don’t reflect such extremes.
4) Allow for paradoxes.
Another helpful strategy is to accept that two opposites can both be true; you don’t necessarily have to choose one extreme or the other. For example, your husband can be both infuriating and loving. Your job can be boring and challenging. You can be creative and structured.
5) Look for partial successes.
Instead of sorting your endeavors into successes or failures, try using the strategy of partial successes. This excerpt from The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism illustrates how to look for partial successes and the benefits of doing so.
“It’s tempting to not start things when we think we can’t do them perfectly. This type of all-or-nothing thinking makes it hard to see that often there is still a benefit in doing part of a task or project or that some things don’t need to be done to exceptionally high standards. Let’s say I decided to go to the gym every morning before work, but I dawdled too long over my morning coffee, and now I don’t have time to go to the spin class that I like. If I let my perfectionist thinking dictate, I’d say, ‘It’s too late now. I guess I can’t exercise today.’ Alternatively, I could say, ‘Well, I missed my spin class, but I could still go walking for twenty minutes before work.’ My perfectionist self would be inclined to see this as a failure, because I didn’t meet my commitment to go to the spin class and the walk wasn’t as good of a workout. A more compassionate and accepting way to think about this—one that will keep me from falling into disappointment and procrastination in the future—is as a partial success.
“It’s very hard to motivate ourselves when we frame things only as ‘success’ or ‘failure.’ So much of life is truly shades of gray. When we set unrealistic expectations and believe we are failures (or lazy or stupid) when we don’t perform flawlessly, it’s easier to not do things at all. Going for a short walk wasn’t my ideal workout, but it still provided me with health benefits. The same is true for journaling, following a budget, meditating, healthy eating, and really any positive activity we’re trying to do. In other words, we don’t have to do things perfectly for them to have value.” (Martin, 2019, page 95-96)
6) Don’t let mistakes define you.
All-or-nothing thinking leads us to believe that mistakes are failures and that failure is fatal. The truth is, we all make mistakes; no one always says or does the right things. Some of the most successful people in the world will tell you that failure is an essential part of success. In other words, you can be a success and a failure – and everything in between. Instead of trying to avoid mistakes, accept them and learn from them, see them as opportunities for growth.
When you notice your all-or-nothing thinking, try one or more of these strategies to challenge these rigid, perfectionistic thoughts. Doing so will invite more compassion – for yourself and others – into your life and will lead to greater motivation, self-esteem, and fulfillment.
For more help with changing your all-or-nothing thinking, do the exercises in The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance.