How to Stop All or Nothing Thinking: Step-by-Step

How to Stop All or Nothing Thinking: Step-by-Step

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“All or nothing” thinking, which is also referred to as “black and white” thinking, refers to the tendency that people have to think and speak in extremes. Consider these absolute words that people often say: always, never, perfect, complete, impossible, identical, ruined, can’t, everybody…

Have you said any of those words today? I know I told my colleague that I have so much on my plate right now that I find myself staring at my computer, frozen, not even knowing where to start.

While this polar method of thinking was beneficial to our ancestors whose lives were often dependant upon their fight or flight responses to danger, our modern society has a lot of middle ground to work with, and this type of polar thinking is actually now considered to be a cognitive distortion. Without being able to recognize any alternatives to a problem or think critically about a situation, you’re likely to put a lot of your potential to waste in life.

The modern world is complex and has subtle changes and differences that cannot simply be placed into one box or another. All or nothing thinking prevents people from seeing the various spectrums on which most feelings, decisions, and certainties actually lie.

Think about it: no matter which extreme you are choosing regarding a decision or feeling, it’s going to elicit an emotional response. Any type of “either/or” and oversimplified thinking generates intense feelings. For example, “I failed that test” or “My sister is perfect” or “That party was a complete disaster” all exemplify pretty strong reactions.

Now, you may be wondering how all or nothing thinking is affecting your life. Let’s look at some common scenarios that you may have either experienced yourself or have heard someone else say that exhibit all or nothing thinking.

7 Examples of All or Nothing Thinking

1. Job Hunting

You’ve just graduated from college and are going out on your first interview. A week later, you receive an email that the company decided to move forward with a different candidate, and you think to yourself, “I’m never going to get a job!”

2. Going to a Party

You’re usually pretty shy and prefer to hang out with just a few close friends with whom you are very familiar. However, one of your friends invited you to their co-worker’s birthday party over the weekend. You reluctantly attended, even though you only knew one other person who would be there.

While at the party, it was clear that all of the other guests were very familiar with each other and you spent the evening pretending to be on your phone or taking some extra time in the bathroom. You think to yourself, “Nobody wants to talk to me because nobody likes me.”

3. Working on a Project

You have been assigned a project at work that you have never done before. You run into a roadblock that you don’t know how to overcome and all of a sudden, you feel defeated. You decide that you’ve failed at that point, and there is no reason to continue to try to complete the project since it won’t be perfect.

4. Going on a Diet

You’ve decided it’s time to overhaul your diet and fitness routine. You stick to whole foods for every meal and you exercise for 45 minutes per day. Everything is going great until four days in when you notice someone left cupcakes in the breakroom for people to enjoy. After eating three cupcakes in one afternoon, you admit defeat to your healthy lifestyle and go back to eating fast food and spending your time in front of the television.

5. Work Promotions

Your supervisor is leaving and you’re up for a promotion to take her spot. However, you were passed over for another internal candidate who is also qualified to do the job. At that point, you think that your career is a waste and you will never be able to get into a higher position than your current one.

6. Dating

You go out on a limb and ask an acquaintance out on a date who you think may be as interested in you as you are in them. However, the person declines your invitation without suggesting an alternative time. You declare that you will be single for the rest of your life because no one is interested in you.

7. Public Speaking

You get off to a rocky start when you’re presenting a new idea to a client because you were running late for the meeting and realized you were one handout short of what you needed for all of the attendees. When you leave the meeting, you decide that you’re not only a terrible presenter, but you’re also probably going to be fired.

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One example of all or nothing thinking is when you decide you're a terrible presenter after you got off a rocky start in the presentation of your idea to a client.

Sure, all of these scenarios will generate some negative feelings. Of course you may feel disappointed when things don’t go your way. However, this sense of defeat goes off course when you are solely focused on the negative aspects of things and disregard anything in your life that is positive. This all or nothing thinking can then cause anxiety, self-doubt, and even exasperation, which can all be harmful to your overall welfare.

People do tend to exaggerate their feelings and use extreme words as shortcuts every now and then just to make things simple. However, this becomes harmful when your all or nothing thinking gets to a chronic state and begins to influence how you process your environment.

Viewing the world in an oversimplified manner can become a hindrance to your success in life, not only by preventing you from trying new things, but also by viewing the world in terms that are often negative.

If you’re not going to be the best, you don’t want to do it. If your work isn’t going to be perfect, what’s the point of putting forth any effort? When you only give yourself two options–pass or fail–you’re giving yourself unattainable standards to meet. So, if you make one mistake and therefore your work won’t be perfect, the only other option is to fail.

Do you notice these patterns or themes in your thinking? If so, it may be fueled by a need for perfectionism. Or, on the other hand, it may be a sign of depression. Either way, it is in your best interest to put an end to this mindset.

In this article, I will describe a 7 step process that will help you overcome this way of thinking.

Let’s get to it.

Step 1: Learn to recognize all or nothing thinking.

Look at your vocabulary. Do you find yourself saying “or” instead of “and”? Do you use absolute words such as those previously mentioned? If you tend to oversimplify anything that you experience or encounter, you’re probably not making any room for the gray area that is inevitably a part of every scenario.

If so, try to change the way you think about and word things. For example, rather than saying, “I had a horrible week” or “I had a perfect week”, instead say, “There were some really great things that happened this week, and I also faced some challenges.”

Allowing yourself to use the word “and” and avoid dichotomous terms will help you start to overcome your all or nothing thinking because it will expand your thoughts and ideas into an unexplored middle ground.

Step 2: Disassociate your sense of worth from your performance.

When you determine your feelings about yourself based solely on your performance, your self-impression will be constantly changing, and oftentimes, it will be negative. And, when you do have a positive impression about yourself, it won’t last long because your performance is constantly changing.

Rather than focusing on the progress that you’re making toward a current goal or on a project that you’re working on right now, pay attention to your qualities that are constant. For example, let’s say you’re loyal, honest, and empathetic–these characteristics about you will not fluctuate with minor mistakes you make throughout your life.

Step 3: Look at all of your options.

When you have an all or nothing mindset, you may jump to make a decision without having all of the information that may be available to you. For example, thinking that you will either exercise every day this week for an hour or you won’t exercise at all. Instead, take your entire schedule into account to see if some days it would make more sense for you to do a quick 30 minute workout and then on one day, take a break entirely to focus on another important aspect of your life.

Alternatively, rather than declaring yourself as being in one political party over another, you may look at each issue that our country faces individually and form your own opinion on a variety of topics, only to realize that you’re somewhere in the middle.

Step 4: Think about your positive qualities.

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Always think about your positive qualities. This way of thinking will improve your impression of yourself .

Each night, consider a few things that you did that day and the associated positive personal quality that the action affirmed. For example, you took the dog for a long walk. Not only does this show that you’re dedicated to taking care of your dog, it also shows that you had the motivation to get a bit of exercise yourself.

Now, you could take this action and think, “Well, my dog has to be walked, and I get the exercise by default because I’m the only one who will walk him.”

However, one of the best things about overcoming all or nothing thinking is that nothing that you do has to be perfect 100% of the time. So, you could alter this thought to, “I did take the extra time today to care for my dog and it felt good to take a longer walk than I normally do.”

This way of thinking will improve your impression of yourself and help keep you motivated to repeat this positive action in the future.

Step 5: Consider some important questions.

When you have polarized thoughts, take a minute to stop and consider any pros and cons that apply to both sides. Sure, it may be harmful to your weight loss goal that you just ate three cupcakes. But, you know that you’re feeling pretty awful after doing it, so you know that next time you have an opportunity that may be tempting, you will think back to this moment and decide to pass on the dessert.

Also, think about the facts versus your assumptions. Let’s say you consumed 1,000 calories with those three cupcakes. You know there are 3,500 calories in one pound of body fat. Will those 1,000 calories really make or break your progress? Or are you assuming that you’re weak and will be unable to be successful in your weight loss efforts? When you look at the facts, you will be able to realize that you can jump right back on track toward meeting your goal.

Finally, consider the thoughts that went through your head or the emotions that you were feeling at the time. For example, “During my presentation, I felt knowledgeable, confident, nervous, unsure, impressive, and dignified. This means that my presentation was neither perfect nor a complete failure.” By recapping your emotional events, you will recognize that your performance in anything can ebb and flow–putting you in a healthy middle ground between perfectionism and failure.

Step 6: Seek out support.

If you find that you truly cannot identify the flip side to a situation or some alternative solutions to a problem, talk to a trusted friend to gain a new perspective. Having another person trying to work through a problem with you can help you recognize possibilities that are outside of your absolute terms and even explore these gray areas even further. It can also help you challenge your own initial thoughts as new ideas are being brought to your attention.

Very rarely (if ever) will you be stuck in a situation where there is no option to seek support or look to outside resources for additional information. Use the tools that are available to you to expand your method of thinking and learn something new along the way. When you start to bounce ideas around with another person, the two of you could come up with a collaboration that neither one of you may have been able to conceive on your own.

Step 7: Know your triggers.

To discover more about how your thoughts manifest, think about the situation at hand. Maybe you’re under an extra amount of pressure at work or you have been feeling really rushed lately with everything that is on your schedule. Or perhaps you have been going through a slump in your marriage and some of the arguments that you are having at home are impacting your everyday performance.

If you can identify the things that trigger your all or nothing thinking, you can address it head-on and reduce the likelihood of it having a big impact on your progress or success. For example, when considering the three cupcake incident, what were you feeling before and during the time when you were eating those cupcakes? Were you stressed out from work? Were you upset about something? Or were you simply hungry? Get to the root of your triggers and address them to lessen their impact.

All or Nothing Thinking: Final Thoughts

All or nothing thinking is rigid and it limits your perspectives. When you change your method of thinking, you also change how you feel, and therefore change how you act. It’s not a simple process to let go of self-sabotaging thoughts and turn to actionable thoughts that help drive success. It takes practice and consistency.

However, if you want to make the change, following the steps laid out in this article will set you up for success. Being able to recognize that reality is often somewhere “in between” and reminding yourself to look at the positive aspects of any situation can help change your all or nothing thinking. 

When you can move your thoughts closer to the center of a spectrum rather than on one extreme or another, you will find more freedom in your life as you see new possibilities open up in front of you. And, by staying open to seeing the positive aspects of things, you will be more equipped to handle any unexpected things that may come your way.

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Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.

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