All-or-nothing thinking is a thought distortion, meaning it is skewed thinking that gives you a false perception. This skewed thinking spreads outward. And if you’re thinking in all-or-nothing terms it is negatively impacting every area of your life including work and relationships.
Thinking in all-or-nothing terms negatively impacts your mental and emotional well-being. And it’s likely a habit. This type of thought habit may be easy to grasp, and simply knowing what it is may lessen its power.
But the difficult part is changing the habit. So if you really want to stop it, you need to have a deep understanding of what it is.
First, a definition:
All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion. Which means it’s an unhelpful thinking habit that distorts our perceptions. Think of “cognitive” as a fancy way of saying thinking, so “thinking distortion.”
As the name suggests, all -or-nothing thinking is when you see things in all-or-nothing terms. Meaning you ignore the complexities of life and dumb them down to either-or considering nothing in between.
This could be ignoring past successes and hyper-focusing on a current failure. Or seeing a person as either bad or good. Not as a complex human who makes both bad and good decisions.
What Happens When We Think in All-or-Nothing Terms
Like all cognitive (thinking) distortions, all-or-nothing thinking leans towards the negative. Thinking in these terms will lead someone to think things are bad. They’ll only focus on the negative aspects of life. The good things are minimized while the negative things are magnified.
All-or-nothing thinking is looking at life through the lens of “either this or that” with nothing in between. So either someone is a complete success or a total failure. Things are perfect or horrible. Happy or Sad. Rich or poor. Fit or fat.
Thinking in all-or-nothing terms makes life rigid. It wreaks havoc on mental and emotional well-being. You may think things will “never” get better. And things feel heavy.
You’ll then unknowingly look for negative things to confirm your thoughts. And the next thing you know, you’re stuck. You feel hopeless and depressed. No only life, you feel rigid too.
An example of All-or-Nothing thinking is believing that everything is perfect or everything is awful. And since things are never perfect, we are most likely thinking they are awful. And when we think things are bad, we search for other things that are bad to confirm our thinking.
Of course, we find what we’re searching for. And even though it’s negative, we feel momentarily good for “proving ourselves right,” to only feel like crap again soon after. Welcome to the cycle of negativity… how drab!
All-or-Nothing Thinking and Self
When it comes to how we view ourselves, all-or-nothing thinking is closely associated with perfectionism. So if you think that something needs to be prefect (including yourself) to have value then you’re likely thinking in all-or-nothing terms.
This can manifest as procrastination. Wanting everything to be perfect is a losing battle. It’s exhausting. So you may procrastinate in order to avoid the negative feelings of trying to be perfect. Or it may look like you thinking you “can’t” do something. It’s not that you “can’t” do the thing. It’s that it’s impossible to do the thing perfectly.
It can also look like feeling completely defeated after a set back. Someone who doesn’t think in all-or-nothing terms will likely be upset and eventually bounce back. Someone who thinks in all-or-nothing terms will think one setback determines the overall score, even if they’ve succeeded many times before.
All-or-Nothing Thinking and Others
All-or-nothing thinking reduces. So if we see other people in all-or-nothing terms we reduce them. This looks like judging them by one action or one belief instead of seeing them as a unique and complex individual.
While there are extremists, not everyone has extreme views. With all-or-nothing we think in extremes. So we assume anyone with an opinion holds it to an extreme. If that opinion is different than our own the all-or-nothing thinking manifests in the “me” vs “them” mentality.
All-or-nothing thinking is viewing life in extremes. Think of it like a scale. But since distorted thinking typically reinforces negative thoughts both sides of the scare are negatively charged.
All of the great things in life are in between the negative ends. When we think in all-or-nothing terms we’re missing out because we’re focused on the negatives ends and not the complexity (and joy) of life in between.
It will be hard to achieve success if we give up at any sign of failure. So if we try to open a business or start a new hobby and our efforts don’t work out as planned we should consider it all part of the learning process.
With all-or-nothing thinking we may think that life needs to work out or it won’t work out at all. So if there a bump in the road we may stop and give up. But it’s at THAT pivotal point where we decide if we succeed or fail (keep going or stop feeling defeated).
All-or-nothing thinking would be like eating a sandwich with just the sliced bread and no filling or spread. Since all-or-nothing thinking is rigid and depressing imagine stale bread.
Or imagine all-or-nothing thinking is like eating just the Oreo wafer with no sweet crème filling. You also have no milk and no water or any liquid to wash the black Oreo bits off your teeth—it’s now a paste on your gums.
Or imagine you have a fresh pack of Oreos or sandwich in the fridge you’re really looking forward. And when the time comes you opened the Oreo pack or the fridge and there was nothing inside.
THAT’s how bad all-or-nothing thinking can be. But it won’t stop there. Imagine it happening on a continual loop for the rest of your life. Because with all-or-nothing thinking, you think one instance is always going to happen or that you’ll never get your Oreos.
More Than “All-or-Nothing” Options
We have the option to scrap the crème filling off the wafters, and we can ditch the bread and just eat the filling. But with life it’s not that simple. There are good and bad and you’ll face them both. But there’s a while bunch of other stuff in between.
So with all-or-nothing thinking, if you get the Oreo you may be focused on how it doesn’t have enough filling or how the sandwich is light. With a more balanced thinking you realize you can get double stuffed next time and can go to a different sandwich shop.
Example of All-or-Nothing Thinking on TV
I’m watching Teem Mom 2 (no judgement lol). And during an episode, a mom says she’s miserable and everyone else is happy. She thinks she’ll never be happy.
She just broke up with her boyfriend and is equating happiness to being in a relationship. She’s hyperfocused on her friends who are in relationships and thinks everyone else is happy.
But if she looks closely, she will see that not all of her friends are dating, and not all of them are happy. She’d realize she’ll be in a relationship again, and that things won’t always be this way.
I looked it up. She’s married now.
What All-or-Nothing Thinking Looks Like
All-of-nothing thinking isn’t too tricky to spot. Look out for words like “never” or “always.” And look out for instances where you feel like things are either-or.
Of course, there are some situations when you have to choose between two things. But that’s not always the case. Mostly life is much more complex.
Related article: 3 Common Beliefs You Need to Ditch ASAP
How to Stop All-or-Nothing Thinking
Elie Wiesel said, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”. Well, the opposite of an extreme isn’t another extreme, it’s balance. So you don’t need to completely avoid extremes to stop all-or-nothing thinking.
What you can do is acknowledge their existence and consciously choose balance. And when we’re focusing on all-or-nothing thinking, we shouldn’t go from one extreme to the next. You need to find the balance, the grey area.
Current advice is a little wacky here and can have us going to the opposite extreme. Problem is, that since the previous extreme was so strong we won’t believe the new extreme. It’s like going from extreme hot to cold.
It’s really hard to think positively, even if we’re aware the negative thought is faulty or untrue because it feels so right in the moment. And positive thinking isn’t meant to fool us or take things to the opposite extreme, it provides assurance that things can and will get better.
If you try to force it, it won’t work. So going from thinking “I can’t do anything right” to “I’m perfect and make no mistakes” won’t do you any good. In fact, it will probably make things worse. So what you can do is use positive thinking to improve thoughts gradually to slow down the thoughts.
I can’t do anything right > I’ve done things right in the past > I can learn to improve. > When I put my mind to something, I make it work. > I’m doing it right.
Stop All-or-Nothing ThinkingWith Visualization
You can also try to catch and stop the all-or-nothing thinking with visualization. If you catch yourself thinking in all-or-nothing terms, or if you feel particularly stressed or negative about a situation, ask yourself, “is there any creme in this cookie?” or “Am I serving myself stale bread”.
A Note from Lyndsey
“Don’t avoid extremes, and don’t choose any one extreme. Remain available to both the polarities – that is the art, the secret of balancing. -Rajneesh
As with most other things in life, all-or-nothing thinking is complex. There are situations where extremes are necessary. For instance, if we are in an unsafe environment, or if we are part of a relationship that’s negatively impacting us.
We may need to cut ties with someone and it can feel extreme. But in perspective, it may be necessary for our mental and emotional well-being.
For instance, it’s extreme to sever a friendship over politics. However, if we tried to preserve the relationship, but they continued to be draining, insulting and calling us nasty things, then severing the relationship needed to happen.
We have the power to choose how we are going to stop the relationship. And we can choose not to take it to an extreme. Instead of telling someone to “fuck off” we can instead decide to tell them it’s no longer a good fit and walk away.
This removes negative energy from the situation and has less impact on our mental and emotional well-being. You’ll feel better in the end. Trust me, I know from experience.
Want to stop all-or-nothing thoughts for good?
Check out the All-or-Nothing Thinking Workbook with 17 prompts to help you create a balanced mindset.
Photo by Etienne Girardet