Understanding and Overcoming All-or-Nothing Thinking
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Do you find it difficult to be flexible in how you think about yourself? Is everything in black and white with little wiggle room? You may be engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, which can negatively affect your long-term mental health. Learning more about all-or-nothing thinking can help you overcome it.
What Is All-or-Nothing Thinking?
All-or-nothing thinking is a type of cognitive distortion that makes someone think about situations in extremes. Something is either 100% good or bad. With all-or-nothing thinking, situations and emotions do not have gray areas or a middle ground.
All-or-nothing thinking tends to be a trait of people with perfectionist personalities. Perfectionists think about themselves and their accomplishments as either good or bad, a success or failure. All-or-nothing thinking can lead to negative mental health impacts over time.
Examples of All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking may come in different forms, depending on the person. But these common all-or-nothing phrases can help determine if you’re experiencing this thinking. Examples of all-or-nothing thinking include:
- “If I don’t get an A on this project, then I am a failure.”
- “If they don’t like me, no one must like me.”
- “If I don’t look like a model, then I must be ugly.”
- “Everything is always terrible.”
- “You never do XYZ.”
All-or-nothing statements can also present themselves as “all or never” statements. Stating that a situation or person always or never does something is all-or-nothing thinking.
Why All-or-Nothing Thinking Can Be Damaging
All-or-nothing thinking can be described as absolutist thinking. Absolutist thinking is a perception of things in defined categories with no in-between. This type of black-and-white thinking has been linked to mental health disorders such as suicide ideation, eating disorders and borderline personability disorder.
All-or-nothing thinking and being rigid in the way someone thinks about themselves and perceives situations is also linked to other negative mental health symptoms and diagnoses such as:
- Substance use disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Personality disorders
All-or-Nothing Thinking Patterns To Look Out For
How do you know if you are experiencing all-or-nothing thinking? Looking at the patterns of how you think about yourself and the perceptions you have about situations may give you insight into your all-or-nothing thinking.
All-or-nothing thinking is usually a symptom of cognitive distortions someone has about themselves or their situations. The language someone talks to themselves in can be a thinking pattern that leads to continued all-or-nothing thinking. Saying things such as, “I am never going to be good enough” or “I will never succeed” frequently shows a pattern of negative self-talk and all-or-nothing thinking.
Being doubtful of yourself and giving up on things quickly because you are afraid to fail or do not have confidence in your abilities can be another thought pattern that can be an indicator of all-or-nothing thinking.
How To Stop All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking may feel challenging to stop, but a negative thought pattern is not healthy for someone’s long-term emotional health. Ways to help fight all-or-nothing thinking and create a more positive approach to self-talk and perception exist.
Reframe Your Thoughts
Thought reframing is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Thought reframing helps teach someone how to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones. Reframing all-or-nothing thoughts can help reduce feelings of anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem. To reframe your thoughts, you should:
- Notice the thought
- Question the thought
- Replace the negative thought with a positive one
Replace Negative Wording
With all-or-nothing thinking, the words used to describe ourselves or the situation tend to be negative. Instead, it can be helpful to replace negative comments with positive ones. Changing your perspective of the situation or seeing another option outside of black or white can help this negative thinking.
Replacing a negative word in all-or-nothing thinking can change “I’ll never be good enough” to “I’m already enough, but I’d like to work harder to improve.” Changing the definitive all-or-nothing statement to something that highlights the positives of your situation allows room for growth rather than just seeing failures.
Get Professional Support
If you find it difficult to break the habit of all-or-nothing thinking, getting professional help from a licensed therapist might be the next step. A therapist can use techniques that help challenge all-or-nothing thinking and promote a more positive mindset.
If you are seeking a therapist and don’t know where to start, The Nobu app is for you. The Nobu app can link you to a licensed therapist for a fee and has many other helpful free tools. Download the Nobu app today at the App Store and the Google Play store to start breaking free from all-or-nothing thinking.
Take Control Of Your Mental Health
- Kelly J. “Your Best Life: Perfectionism–The Bane of Happiness.” National Library of Medicine, October 2015. Accessed November 15, 2022.
- Rnic K. “Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression.” National Library of Medicine, August 19, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2022.
- Al-Mosaiwi M. “In an Absolute State: Elevated Use of Absolutist Words Is a Marker Specific to Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation.” National Library of Medicine, January 5, 2018. Accessed November 15, 2022.
- Stanborough, R.J. “How Black and White Thinking Hurts You (and What You Can Do to Change It).” Healthline.com, January 13, 2020. Accessed November 16, 2022.