Do people often tell you that you see things in black and white, and miss all the shades of gray? This problem is called “all-or-nothing thinking” and can lead to real problems. Learn about the phenomenon and its consequences.
All-or-nothing thinking is one of several common unhelpful ways of thinking known as cognitive distortions. All-or-nothing thinking casts things in extremes – it seems there are only two ways things can be. This kind of thinking makes it easy to believe there is no flexibility or ambiguity in a situation. It leads you to feel trapped by what seems like a small number of possibilities.
All-or-nothing thinking is also called “dichotomous thinking” or “black-and-white thinking” (because it erases the “gray area” of alternative perspectives between two extremes). As is the case with all cognitive distortions, everyone has all-or-nothing thoughts once in a while. Unfortunately, when you get stuck in the trap of extreme all-or-nothing thinking, it’s easy for pessimism and resignation to grow.
Examples of All-Or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking can present itself within all sorts of different situations and topics. Consider the following examples of all-or-nothing thoughts:
- Any day with a rough patch is a bad day.
- If it rains, it’s not safe to drive at all.
- Kids grow up to either be good people or bad people.
- Because I didn’t win an award at work, I’m a bad employee.
- If your partner forgets your anniversary, they don’t love you.
- Real friends always know how to cheer you up.
The example below illustrates how this type of thinking can limit us and lead to pessimism or depression:
Samantha was in a committed romantic relationship for several years. That relationship ended last year, and she has decided to resume dating. She goes on a first date and, despite having a generally good time, finds herself thinking in the days following that the date was a waste of time because she didn’t feel an intense connection with the person and didn’t immediately fall in love. She admits to her friends afterward that “well, it was worth a shot, but it’s clearly not going to work out.” Even when her friends remind her that she had a pretty good time and that relationships take time to build, she responds by saying, “there’s absolutely no way I would end up happy with someone who doesn’t sweep me off my feet.”
How Does All-or-Nothing Thinking Cause Problems?
Cognitive distortions like all-or-nothing thinking can have a negative impact on your mood. This is because how you think about things influences how you feel. All-or-nothing thinking can be unhelpful in the following ways:
- Feeling trapped or stuck: You lose the ability to see the various ways things could be other than how they seem in the moment. Over time, this can lead you to resign yourself to thinking that’s just how things are.
- Selective attention: When you’re focused on only two potential ways things can be, and one or both of them seem bad, new information that doesn’t fit this is ignored. New information that fits your view gets amplified. As a result, over time, you develop a habit of seeing many things in life as a dichotomy of extremes.
When your thinking makes much of life and the world around you seem like a series of inescapable dilemmas while blinding you to alternatives, it can worsen your mood and contribute to unpleasant emotions. These can include anxiety, sadness, frustration, and hopelessness. In some cases, all-or-nothing thinking can lead to more full-blown mental health problems including depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, or perfectionism.
How It Can Cause Perfectionism
Because it casts things in extremes, all-or-nothing thinking makes your mental approach rigid and inflexible. It also can make it feel like there is a lot at stake in a given situation — more than there really is. This is why all-or-nothing thinking often goes hand-in-hand with maladaptive perfectionism (perfectionism that makes your life worse instead of better). It can make holding on tightly to harsh standards feel important or helpful when a more flexible approach would be wiser.
For example, if you hold a perfectionistic belief such as My house should be spotlessly clean before I go to bed each night, you might often feel upset if you leave even the smallest tidying task incomplete at the end of the day. This perfectionistic standard is hard for most people to meet on a regular basis. Standards like these often lead to even more extreme all-or-nothing thinking like If I go to bed with any mess left in my house, I’ve failed.
How to Break Out of All-or-Nothing Thinking
As with all cognitive distortions, there’s no easy way to completely get rid of all-or-nothing. But there are many ways to lessen the impact of all-or-nothing thinking and improve how you feel. For example:
- Building awareness/recognition: If you’re more aware of all-or-nothing thinking and can notice when it’s shaping your thoughts, you can try to shift your perspective. Mindfulness practice is one effective way to improve this awareness.
- Finding the “gray area” between extremes: Life is full of nuance, variations, and “exceptions to the rules.” Learning to look for alternatives that exist alongside what seem like the only two possibilities can help reduce feelings of pessimism and resignation.
Changing your thinking isn’t always easy to do – in fact, it’s usually pretty hard! Fortunately, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven treatment tools that can help you break out of unhelpful cognitive distortions. All-or-nothing thinking is common for many people experiencing anxiety and depression, and undoing it is a common focus of CBT. Working with a CBT therapist can help with depression, anxiety, and high standards, and help you escape the trap of only seeing the black-and-white in life.
Please contact us if all-or-nothing thinking is contributing to challenges in your life.