How to Overcome the Habit of All-Or-Nothing Thinking
“Another failure in a string of failures, Doc. I don’t get it, I’ve done everything, everything right, and it never seems to be enough.” I can remember the look on this particular client’s face: a look of exhaustion, a look of frustration, a look that plainly said I give up. It’s a look I’ve seen on many people, a look I’ve seen on myself at times. And while the specifics might be different, these are feelings the majority of us can relate to.
While not all of my clients call me “Doc,” many present with a familiar set of self-limiting thoughts and expectations. Our emotions, particularly negative ones, are at the center of our irrational thinking and self-limiting beliefs. Fear, stress, embarrassment and worry, just to name a few.
We face hectic days, busy schedules, high stress demands and responsibilities. These very real conditions of our lives leave us susceptible to errors in our thinking. Our negative feelings often result in confirming thoughts in the form of cognitive distortions. Simply put, if I feel irritated or anxious, my thoughts will twist and skew to confirm and support those feelings.
Cognitive distortions negatively impact our lives in various ways:
One of the more common forms of cognitive distortions is called all-or-nothing thinking, or black-and-white thinking, where we reduce an issue down to two absolute, inflexible choices. Some of my clients have said things like “Things will never change,”; “I’ve always had problems expressing myself”; “Any deviation from my plan will lead to failure and ruin”.
All-or-nothing statements often contain the words always or never, and they always split our views into extreme and inflexible positions. Simply put, with all-or-nothing thinking there is no middle ground.
Much of life’s experiences are a blend of ups and downs, bitter and sweet moments, successes and struggles. But then why do we often use all-or-nothing thinking? Why do we become inflexible in our thinking?
The vast majority of us understand that life is complicated, and that we ourselves are complicated. When we feel stressed, insecure, or unsure, many fall into all-or-nothing thinking as a means of simplifying an issue down to two possible positions: yes or no. And having to decide between two clear, unequivocal choices is a lot more tolerable than having to choose between many possibilities. Either I succeeded, or I didn’t. Either you love me, or you don’t. Either I’m a good person, or a bad person.
Again, there is no middle ground, no wiggle room or margin for error, no room for uncertainty or interpretation. And in times of stress or fear, “certainty” is always our friend.
Think back to a time where you felt unsure, scared, or agitated. In that particular situation, would it be easier to make a choice if presented with two options, or twenty? Choices are great under more typical conditions, but too many choices can feel chaotic, overwhelming, and ultimately unhelpful when we feel intense emotions. When we use all-or-nothing thinking, we quiet down this chaos by eliminating options.
Wait, isn’t this a good thing? Doesn’t all-or-nothing thinking lead to action? Unfortunately, this is typically not the case.
All-or-nothing thinking tends to reduce an issue down to two extremes, and the decision almost always results in inaction and overgeneralizations.
Consider an example that might be close to your heart: starting therapy. Many people (myself included at times) struggle to take the initial steps to get started with therapy. While it’s appropriate to have high expectations of therapy, many present with unrealistic, all-or-nothing expectations of the therapy.
For example, some of my own clients have said “I figured [therapy] would take too long so why bother,” when discussing the previous obstacles to starting therapy. Another client stated “I barely understand myself, how can anyone else possibly understand me?”
If we take the above statement at face value, it’s pretty clear how the expectations of improvement taking too long, or expectations of not being understood would lead to inaction, in this case not getting started with therapy. While all-or-nothing thinking simplifies things, it rarely leads us to our goals.
I realize I threw a lot at you, dear reader, so let me try to summarize the above information into this simple statement: all-or-nothing thinking reduces complicated issues into two choices; however, we inevitably choose inaction and maintain our status quo.
All-or-nothing thinking is a human experience, and if you are prone to this kind of inflexible thinking then you are in good company. And fortunately, there are some strategies we can use to soften and change our distorted thinking.
Strategies to Help Manage Black and White aka All-Or-Nothing Thinking:
Challenging our negative thinking is the process of identifying our rigid, negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive, realistic ones. For example, if we are prone to see ourselves as socially anxious or incompetent, we might want to challenge those negative thoughts by identifying times and situations where we felt confident or were given positive feedback from others. With effortful reflection, we can often find real-life examples that challenge our negative, all-or-nothing thinking.
Practicing mindfulness is another strategy for overcoming all-or-nothing thinking. It’s common for our cognitive distortions to pull us back into the past (guilt, shame, regret), or forward into the future (worry, future-forecasting, control). Mindfulness practices can be helpful tools to redirect your focus back to the present moment, which is the only moment you or I can control.
Focusing on the positives in life and gratitude can also help change our thoughts and what we are paying attention to. Negativity feeds negativity, and sometimes intentionally generating positivity and gratitude can go a long way to changing how we feel.
Talking with a psychologist or counselor is always a great idea when working to identify our cognitive distortions and our stuck points in life. We are all at the center of our issues, and it’s common (and human) to develop tunnel vision. A mental health professional can not only give you an outside perspective, but also provide information and skills to best address your needs.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic or on how therapy can help with your all-or-nothing thinking, I invite you to contact me for your complimentary consultation at 954-391-5305. I offer therapy for adults at our serene counseling offices in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs as well as online therapy for those who reside in the state of Florida through our secure telehealth platform.
For more information about my approach to therapy or specific services offered, click here.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to speaking with you soon!