8 thoughts on “How to Change Your All-Or-Nothing Thinking

  • February 7, 2019 at 6:57 am

    A great unpacking of this thinking error, very well done. I’ve never understood the reticence of many to embrace CBT; they believe it’s too cognitive or simplistic or doesn’t take into account multicultural factors (resulting in distortion by pathologizing). I’ve never seen it this way. You can take any one of them and follow the crumbs down the rabbit hole to identify and work through the constellation of internalized messages due to parents’ emotionality to locate the original deprivation, accomodation or adaptation. This is also why I believe the greatest gift a parent can offer their child is to do their growthwork in therapy, even if they don’t have any inner or observable symptoms or problems, because doing so will dramatically decrease the probability of unhealthy generational transmissions, projecting idealized dreams upon the child, and the many other ways parents teach their children to mistrust, repudiate or disavow their inner experience (thoughts, feelings, images, memories, bodily sensations), resulting in an adult who is open, adaptive, confident, able to regulate self-esteem, self-validate, relational, conscientious and present and many other positive attributes.

    *Fun Fact: the word “should” should have special meaning to anyone who experiences anxiety or other negative feelings directly after this hot button charged word is revealed in the inner expanse, for as we unpack it, we often find at the crossroads what’s been relentlessly driving us all along–the internalized expectations, values and goals of our parents. Sometimes these are positive and mostly there is no need to challenge them, for example, (you should) “treat others the way you want to be treated.” Others are clearly negative: girls are not (shouldn’t be) like that. Or messages from the culture (to which our parents are the “ambassadors” of: Boys (shouldn’t) cry. I’ve found externalizing “the should” as the “shouldie monster,” or an “anxiety process” that comes up to protect, defend or otherwise control a person. My monster is a fire creature that leaps from the stony ground, shooting balls of flame and destruction from every pore and laying waste to all it sees. Sometimes I’ll watch this beast from a distance, observing and being curious about what it will do next, wondering, what does this part of me want or need? Can I bargain with it? I know if I draw sharp swords against Shouldy Monster it will become exponentially bigger, stronger and badder. Stuffing the fiery brute is drinking my own kool-aid, and I know it.

    I also thoroughly enjoyed the antidotes you offer for those stuck in either/or thinking. Saying grace before dinner is now very distasteful to many, including myself. Nonetheless, I’ve found expressing what I am thankful for, as well as the positives and especially my strengths, to have a significant impact on increasing a positive mood. It’s just too easy to get drawn into cynicism, apathy or check out in some other way to the world, especially now. Due to our current political situation, sometimes I fantasize about stranded on an island in the South Pacific, but of course, I shouldn’t think that way, because then my parents would think I’m dead and they would suffer (we can get into codependency issues later).

    Let’s examine Emotional Reasoning next!

  • February 7, 2019 at 10:51 am

    WOW. This is what i need to to read today. Thank you so much for this. I need to refresh myself, my life and marriage.

  • March 31, 2019 at 6:12 pm

    This is very interesting and it is a comfort to read. However, there are many practical difficulties to apply these lessons. Partial successes may still be insufficient to qualify as success. If you are not good enough if compared to your peers under an objectively defined measurement, than you are not the best, these mean not being accepted to the right schools, not being promoted, or not getting the job. You could comfort yourself by believing you are still a good human being, you are still going to fail in life. Successes are rewarded, not succeeding is punishing in practical ways, feeling better about failures is a poor consolation.

    • March 31, 2019 at 9:19 pm

      Hi Clara,
      Thanks for your comment. Noticing a partial success is meant to highlight your progress, increase motivation, and to help you see that the process is important, not just the final product. When we move out of all-or-nothing thinking we can see that there isn’t a “right” school or a single definition of success (and that not achieving wealth, power, or an impressive title means you’re a failure). I strongly disagree with the notion that not attending the right school or not being promoted means you’re going to fail in life. We all have different strengths. And as you noted, we can’t all be the best at everything — but that doesn’t equate to failure. For example, my child has a lot of struggles with school. He’s never going to be the top of his class academically. He may not go to college. I don’t think he’s going to be a failure. He has many other strengths (just not the ones required to excel in school). Being able to see his progress is very motivating and helpful — rather than focusing on his deficiencies compared to other kids.

  • November 6, 2019 at 5:10 am

    Is it really all-or-nothing thinking when it only tilts one way? I always assumed this was my problem, but even when things turn out the way I wanted I don’t think of myself as a success–I think of myself as having averted disaster temporarily. But if things go a different way, then I’m more than happy to label myself a failure.

    I’m working on it, but the label just confuses me.

    • November 8, 2019 at 12:27 pm

      Yes, that is what we’d call all-or-nothing thinking and you’re right that people who struggle with it only identify with the negative alternative. All-or-nothing thinking prevents people from seeing themselves as successful, beautiful, a good person (for example) because based on all-or-nothing thinking these labels require you to be perfect, which is impossible — so you choose the only other alternative you’ve allowed (failure, ugly, bad).

      • November 8, 2019 at 1:31 pm

        Okay, I think I get it now–I think where I was getting confused was exactly what the all or nothing referred to. I was imagining it as having a really wide gulf within yourself, like, I make really good grilled cheese and therefore I am the grilled cheese god but when I tried to make tiramisu the first time it went terribly and therefore I suck at making tiramisu. Instead it’s a whole-person value–I didn’t do this thing well and that means overall I am a terrible person.

        Which, the other thing is a problem in itself, but it’s hard to tell where one problem ends and the other begins.

  • December 6, 2019 at 10:14 am

    I have a real problem with this as I cannot move forward with buying/leasing a car for fear of failure of getting ripped off and not getting the best deal. It’s a huge problem getting stuck and procrastinating which leads to feelings of failure. What happens when I want to buy a house, omg?


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