We all have negative thoughts from time to time. No matter how confident or smart we are, we can always make mistakes, and fall into the trap of unhealthy thought patterns.
One of the most common cognitive distortions is what’s called all or nothing thinking, or black and white thinking. It can both lead to or be caused by mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
If you want to fix or improve anything in your life, it’s important that you understand what your problem is, why you have it, and how the problem works and affects you. So let’s have a look at the definition of all or nothing thinking, as well as some common examples, before we learn how to eliminate it.
What is all or nothing thinking?
Essentially, it means thinking in extremes, or not being able to see the positive or negative side of a certain situation, experience, or person (including yourself).
It means seeing or perceiving something as either good or bad, a complete success or a complete failure, a blessing or a disgrace. It means having to rate things on a scale of one to ten without being able to use the middle numbers.
Unfortunately, those who suffer from black and white thinking tend to exaggerate the negative side of things. This usually happens either because of a mental health disorder, or because of a very intense emotional state.
When you suffer from disorders such as depression, you tend to have a very negative outlook of the world, life, or yourself. Such extreme outlook can easily turn into extreme thoughts, which rarely reflect the actual reality.
But even if you don’t have any major mental health issues, you may still experience all or nothing thinking when you feel intense emotions — for instance, when you are angry at someone, or very sad. It could also be triggered by a different physical state, such as being extremely tired after a long day at work.
To better understand how this works, let’s have a look at some common examples. As I mentioned earlier, we all have negative or inaccurate thoughts from time to time, so if any of the following apply to you or someone you know, don’t worry.
Examples of all or nothing thinking
Anna loves to travel, but she’s a perfectionist. Because of her all-or-nothing thoughts, her trips are going to be either fabulous or a complete disaster. She needs to plan everything in advance, and carefully choose the accommodation, activities, and places to visit, which is very time consuming.
Because she has unrealistic standards, she’s rarely happy, even when she’s on holiday. While everyone else is able to relax and enjoy their time off, she obsesses over the time wasted at the airport, the hotel being too far away from the city center, the bad weather, or anything else that’s not the way she would like it to be.
Eventually, she stops traveling. Her all-or-nothing thoughts made it too stressful to go anywhere, so she prefers to spend her time off at home, where she won’t worry as much.
Nate suffers from depression. His outlook on life is very negative: he finds it difficult to see the bright side of anything. Moreover, he thinks human beings are too selfish and don’t really care about others’ feelings. Because of his mental health issue, his thoughts and views are extreme, and far from accurate.
One day, one of Nate’s friends makes a joke about him being sad all the time, and says he may be “a little crazy”. Nate’s friend genuinely cares about his feelings, and the only purpose of his joke is to simply help him take life less seriously.
However Nate, who suffers from black and white thinking, interprets his friend’s words as an attack. He thinks his friend is tactless, and doesn’t understand the pain he is going through, just like everyone else. He doesn’t say anything, but then as he is going back home, he decides to stop seeing him.
Alice has gone through two very toxic relationships. Her first partner was an abusive narcissist who made her life a nightmare, and it took her many months to find the courage to cut him off from her life. His second partner wasn’t as bad, however after a while he stopped giving her attention, and eventually cheated on her.
After too much pain, Alice develops all-or-nothing thought patterns as a defence mechanism, and stops looking for a new relationship. By labeling all men as selfish opportunists, she is now certain she’ll never experience any toxic relationship again.
She avoids pain, but at the same time she makes it impossible for anyone — including those who would truly love and appreciate her — to connect with her.
Why do we have all or nothing thoughts?
Though such thinking pattern almost always leads to sadness and frustration, subconsciously it may seem useful in the short term.
For example, all or nothing thinking can make it easier to judge someone, or assess a particular situation. It’s a lot easier to say something never works, rather than saying it doesn’t work 60 or 70 percent of the time.
When we admire someone, we may forget about his or her negative traits and think they’re perfect, simply because it’s easier to do so. Similarly, we may say we absolutely hate one of our colleagues, but if we were accurate and took the time to think, we would simply say we don’t get on well with them.
Another reason we may see all or nothing thinking as useful is it could be one of our defence mechanisms, as it was for Alice (in the example I made up earlier).
When you generalize, or see something as terrible, or the worst, even when it’s not, your rational mind learns to stay away from it, thus making it less likely to experience any kind of pain. For instance, while it’s acceptable to interact with people who get angry from time to time, you would definitely stay away from the most aggressive person ever.
The third reason human beings can develop black and white thinking is to exaggerate their views or opinion on purpose, especially when criticizing someone.
If we use harsh, mean words against someone, it may be easier for us to discredit them, and make it absolutely clear that we disagree with their views. In this case, being accurate wouldn’t be enough to express our negative emotions, so we may choose to exaggerate everything.
How to stop all or nothing thinking
Luckily, it’s quite easy to get rid of these thought patterns — it can be as simple as paying attention to the words you use, or challenging the negative thoughts by asking yourself specific questions.
To stop, eliminate, or reduce all or nothing thinking…
1. Pay attention to your words
This could be either what you say or what you silently repeat to yourself. There’s some words or phrases that clearly indicate absolutist thinking, specifically:
- Everyone~no one
- Every single time~not even once
- I swear~I guarantee
Now, using any of these doesn’t automatically mean your views are extreme — you could be 100 percent right. However most of the time these expressions will simply be inaccurate.
For instance, if you think or say that everyone behaves a certain way, you’re probably making a mistake. So pay close attention to the words that you use whenever you describe a particular person or situation. By paying attention, you will become more aware of your thoughts, and identify those that are clearly inaccurate.
2. Think: when does it usually happen?
When do you have all or nothing thoughts? You may realize it only happens when you are tired, upset, or angry. Perhaps it usually happens when you didn’t get enough sleep, and you’re more irritable.
Or, it could be triggered by a specific situation, such as arguing with someone who doesn’t listen, being late for work, making a small mistake, or being under pressure.
When our physical or mental state changes, it’s easy to get carried away. If you are able to identify when you fall into the trap of black and white thinking, you’ll then be able to recognize it, and avoid it.
For example, if you realize it’s usually triggered by making a mistake at work, the next time it happens you should simply ignore the mistake, and silence that voice telling you that you failed, or that it was the worst mistake ever, or that it happens all the time. Don’t dwell on it and focus on your current tasks.
3. Realize you can’t be right all the time
When we think we’re right all the time, our ego feels better. We want to know that our views, the way we see things, the way we interpret any event happening in our life is 100 percent correct, always.
Unfortunately, this is basically impossible. But most of us will find it hard to accept the possibility of being wrong, as our ego would feel threatened.
If you want to beat all or nothing thinking, it’s important to realize that sometimes you do make mistakes, and there’s nothing bad about it. Some of your thoughts will be right, and some will be wrong. Or, you may be right about a particular situation in general, but fail to understand some of the nuances.
4. Challenge your thoughts
Because you can’t always be right, you want to challenge your thoughts often. When you realize you may be thinking in extremes (because of the words you use, or because of your emotional state), you want to challenge your thoughts by asking yourself specific questions.
For example, if you catch yourself thinking “this happens every single time”, stop, and ask yourself: is it really every time, or most of the time? Am I being accurate? Or am I being too negative?
If you think of someone and describe them as the worst/most (…) person you’ve ever met, you may want to challenge your thoughts and ask: is it really true? Is it accurate to say that this person is the most deplorable, or arrogant, etc.? Does this person have positive traits as well?
Obviously, use common sense: sometimes you will be right even if your thoughts are extreme. You may be dealing with someone who is abusive, or disrespectful, and they may even be amongst the worst people you’ve ever met. And if that’s true, there’s no need to challenge your thoughts — if anything, you want to reinforce them!
But in general, ask yourself the right questions before jumping to any extreme conclusions.
5. Stop being a perfectionist
All or nothing thinking is often linked to perfectionism. For example, if you believe you can perform a task only if you excel at it (otherwise it’s not worth spending your time and energy on it), that’s both perfectionism and absolutist thinking.
If your standards are too high, or unrealistic; if you have created strict rules on how you and others should behave; and if such standards and rules tend to make life impossible rather than enjoyable, you probably want to change your mindset.
Don’t be too focused on the outcome, or results, of things. Don’t have any expectations that may discourage you. Just enjoy the process. When it comes to work, relationships, health, or anything else in life, the goal is to achieve something that’s good or great — not perfect.
Also, stay away from anything that may portray a distorted view of our world, such as social media. If all you see is extremes, subconsciously you may think there’s no place for those who are normal, or average. It may also lead you to believe that things are either perfect or terrible.
All or nothing thinking: summary
When you think in extremes, you may fail to see the positive or negative side of something. Though all or nothing thinking may serve a purpose immediately (for example, it may be a useful defence mechanism), in the long run it will make you more vulnerable to mental health issues.
There’s five things you can do to stop this toxic mindset:
- Pay attention to the expressions that you use, because some words or phrases clearly indicate absolutist thinking
- Notice when it happens (is it when you’re angry? Tired? Sad?)
- Realize you can’t be right all the time: as human beings, we all make mistakes
- Challenge your thoughts, and ask yourself whether your view is actually accurate or realistic
- Stop being a perfectionist: it makes life way too difficult
Thank you for reading this article! If you found it useful, please share it 👇