All-or-nothing thinking places our behaviors and thoughts into two categories: good or bad. It only assigns value in these two extremes; there is no gray area. An example of this type of thinking is saying, “I failed that test so I will never be successful”. One bad moment turned into something larger with consequences for the rest of your life. In reality, you failed one test and with some more studying or extra credit, the class will be passed. However, it can be hard to see the uncertainties or ‘gray areas’ in times of stress. Sometimes our minds prefer a set outcome, even if it is a negative one. It is important to try to stop all-or-nothing thinking because it is limiting. It gives only two outcomes, when in reality, many more exist.
This type of thinking is called a Cognitive Distortion and is addressed directly in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). To challenge these thoughts, you first have to recognize that they exist. Look for words like ‘always’, ‘can’t’, or ‘never’ in your thoughts. These words can be a sign that all-or-nothing thinking is happening. Are there specific situations where these thoughts occur more? Try to look for triggers of all-or-nothing thinking.
After you have identified patterns of all-or-nothing thinking, try breaking the binary by adding the word ‘and’or ‘but’ to your thoughts. Rarely are situations completely black-and-white, so explore the other possibilities. To continue with the previous example, you could say ‘I failed this test but this does not define who I am as a student’. You are not the result of one action, so try not to speak as if you are.
Another way to combat all-or-nothing thinking is to use real-life evidence. Has this ever happened before? What was the outcome? Challenge yourself to think of three other outcomes of this situation. This can open up the thought from having only two possibilities to recognizing that there are more.
Most importantly, remember to be kind to yourself. All-or-nothing thinking can lead to negative self-talk. We all make mistakes, we all have an off day. One moment is not indicative of who you are. Give yourself the chance to move forward by recognizing all of the possibilities that come with each situation.
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Written by Jessy Pucker, LMSW