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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » Everything you need to know about All-or-Nothing Thinking

Everything you need to know about All-or-Nothing Thinking

Anyone can be forgiven for thinking that, based on the news broadcast in the media at the moment, there is only bad news happening in the world today. As we tune into news outlets and social media, we expect these bad news stories, wars and other conflicts, crime, catastrophes of all kinds, and even extreme weather conditions, so no news really is good news.

However, research, conducted in six countries including the UK, analysed media sentiment from national news outlets and found that negative news was covered 32% of the time, neutral 53% of the time and positive 15% of the time. So why do many people think as they tune into news outlets that all news is bad news, despite evidence to the contrary?

An explanation may be that the human brain has a negativity bias; that is, we attribute more weight to negative experiences and interactions than to positive ones. Studies have shown that up to 70 per cent of our thoughts are negative. Cognitive biases such as a negativity bias are our brain’s attempt to be efficient and make decisions quickly. They serve as mental shortcuts so that our brains can speed up information processing. However, they can create systematic errors in our way of thinking. This is because they rely on our perceptions, observations and experiences and not on actual facts.

Most people engage in this quirk of thinking from time to time; our brains take shortcuts, making assumptions based on minimal evidence or without evaluating the validity of the assumption. It is only when this form of thinking becomes consistent and habitual that it develops into a condition known as Cognitive Distortion, and in the case of the example above, a form of Cognitive Distortion known as All-or-Nothing Thinking.

What is all-or-nothing thinking?

Cognitive distortions are consistent unhelpful, unrealistic or irrational thoughts, or errors in our thinking; the way that we are thinking about something doesn’t match up with the reality of what is happening. One of the most common cognitive distortions is all-or-nothing thinking, also known as black-and-white thinking, or polarised thinking.

This form of thinking categorises the world into absolutes, leaving out the possibility of any grey areas or middle ground. This thought process leads people to place everything into boxes of “good” and “bad”. They do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes.

All-or-nothing thinking ignores the possibility of moral complexities and shades of grey in a situation. All-or-nothing thinking deals in extremes – it is an extreme simplification of reality. People and situations are either wonderful or dreadful, or a person believes that they are either heading for success or failure. Unfortunately, all-or-nothing thinking rarely matches reality and can set individuals up to feel confused or disappointed. People who assume an all-or-nothing mindset tend to have a ‘glass half empty’ outlook and viewpoint.

All or Nothing Thinking

What causes all-or-nothing thinking?

It is thought that cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking develop over time. As with other cognitive distortions, all-or-nothing thinking is part of a complex system that is intertwined with our thoughts, behaviours and emotions. There isn’t one underlying reason which is the cause.

When someone has experienced trauma or difficult situations in the past, they are more likely to interpret neutral situations in a negative light, and it is common for people to think this way when they are under stress. If not kept in check, all-or-nothing thinking can become habitual and a person’s default thinking process.

All-or-nothing thinking is a common symptom for individuals who suffer from anxiety-related disorders, and several mental health conditions have all-or-nothing thinking as an associated symptom, such as:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
  • Borderline personality disorder (BAD)
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

There is also a connection between all-or-nothing thinking and eating disorders. It has been seen in people with bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and anorexia nervosa. People with these disorders may divide what they eat into “good foods” and “bad foods” or label their eating behaviours as “good” or “bad”. They can’t accept that all foods can be part of a healthy diet if consumed in moderation.

All-or-nothing thinking also often develops in people who are recovering from addictions such as drugs, alcohol or even nicotine. One reason why some people have an all-or-nothing approach to recovery from alcohol or substance abuse is that they may not be fully committed to it. They are setting the bar unrealistically high with all or nothing as an excuse to relapse. This thought pattern lends itself to perfectionism and can cause people to throw in the towel when things don’t go perfectly: “I had one cigarette, so I have failed at quitting”. It is common for those struggling with addiction to develop the idea that if they were to stop the alcohol or substance abuse, their life would become perfect right away. They fail to appreciate that it will take time and effort to end any physical addiction.

Examples of all-or-nothing thinking

The main characteristic of all-or-nothing thinking is the tendency to generalise and incorporate different realities under one category. People who think like this often use absolute words such as “always”, “never”, “everything”, and “nothing” or words that are the polar opposite of each other such as “good or bad” or “right or wrong”. They do this automatically and put every isolated incident that comes their way into one of those boxes. When all-or-nothing thinking takes hold, people view the world through a narrow lens that limits their ability to see the complexity and nuances of people, situations or issues.

When someone thinks in absolutes, they only see one extreme or the other. Whatever challenges these viewpoints is either ignored or discounted, leaving no room for in-betweens or shades of grey.

People who think in absolutes may make statements such as: 

  • Nothing ever works out for me
  • I’m completely useless to everyone
  • I was passed over for a promotion at work, I’m a bad employee, and now my job is on the line
  • My child is always badly behaved
  • Passing my driving test is impossible
  • Takeaways and ready meals are bad for you

This type of thinking ignores or overlooks any situational factors, past successes, positive experiences, or alternative solutions without ever finding a middle ground or considering any grey areas.

Some signs of all-or-nothing thinking may include:

  • Using extreme terms to describe, for example, people and situations, such as always and never, success and failure, easy and impossible, good and bad.
  • Engaging in negative self-talk – it is very unusual for someone to do everything perfectly all of the time; however, if a person is applying all-or-nothing thinking they might refer to themselves as useless or a failure if something they do is not perfect.
  • Another form of this perfectionism in all-or-nothing thinking can also lead a person to think that they must do something perfectly or not attempt it at all. This can be very limiting and may lead to a fear of trying new things, meeting new people or making changes. If all they can imagine is a complete success or total failure, they will try their best to avoid that failure, even if it means not acting on a certain undertaking.
  • Someone who has an inability to see either the good or bad in a person – this can lead them to believe someone must be only one or the other. They do not take any nuances or circumstances into consideration.

All-or-nothing thinking is also prevalent in diet culture, and many people who diet adopt an all-or-nothing diet mentality. When it comes to eating, many people think of foods as good or bad, leading to restrictive food rules. They can have a “healthy” or “unhealthy” day based on their dietary choices. This all-or-nothing mentality often shows up in restrictive diets and unhelpful beliefs about food and health.

It can also be seen in people with eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia or binge eating. All-or-nothing mindsets are a catalyst for binge and purging cycles, with many people adopting an all-or-nothing mindset as a way to seek control over food and their own self-image.

Restrictive food rules can train a person’s mind to believe in extremes. Some examples of this thinking include, but are not limited to:

  • I can’t eat that food because it is “bad” for me
  • I gave into that piece of cake today, so I have ruined my whole diet. I might as well give up entirely
  • I am going to give up eating snacks and crisps starting tomorrow. In the meantime, let me finish all the snacks and crisps in the house
  • I can’t be trusted around certain foods. I know I will eat the entire box of chocolates if I have one or two
  • I’m on my holiday so I can eat whatever I want. I’ll detox when I get home

Examples of behaviours in an all-or-nothing diet mentality can include, but are not limited to:

  • Following strict and inflexible food rules, such as giving up all sugars or avoiding favourite foods entirely
  • Having a strict definition of what a “good” diet looks like
  • Loss of control around certain foods
  • Yo-yo dieting
  • Swinging between restrictive diets and eating with abandon, perhaps leading to binge eating – limiting eating certain foods to only on special occasions such as birthdays, holidays or weekends is an especially common way that many people restrict without realising it

The effects of all-or-nothing thinking

This type of thinking often leads to rigid opinions and judgements, something is either right or wrong, good or bad, without considering any other alternatives or perspectives. This can lead to conflict and misunderstanding and, in extreme cases, contribute to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and attitudes.

By placing experiences, choices and people into polarised categories such as “right” and “wrong”, all-or-nothing thinking can keep people from challenging their thought process and can leave them more prone to negative thoughts. For many who experience all-or-nothing thinking, ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt can be difficult to understand and to tolerate.

The impact of all-or-nothing thinking on a regular basis can be serious for people as it tends to focus on mistakes and flaws and they will often discount strengths, accomplishments and effort. It can have the effect of:

  • Reducing a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Providing a person with a lack of self-worth
  • A person being unable to think of solutions or being able to find a middle ground
  • Leaving a person feeling overwhelmed and/or less willing to take risks
  • A person having difficulty with developing and maintaining trusting relationships, as this type of thinking can make it hard to have close personal relationships
  • A person having difficulty handling work or school/college pressures
  • Giving a person a distorted, unhealthy view of reality
  • A person avoiding, or having a fear of, asking for help
  • A person having less resilience in the face of hardships
  • A person having difficulty receiving feedback

When people fall into using this all-or-nothing thinking habitually, this can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and a sense of being defective, which may affect their physical and mental wellbeing.

All-or-nothing thinking is also intimately linked to the development and exacerbation of anxiety and anxiety disorders. This thinking pattern can drive a person into a state of continual unease, as they believe that any situation must either result in complete success or total failure. They may constantly be feeling on edge and fearing that any misstep may result in catastrophic outcomes, thereby intensifying their anxiety.

People who think in all-or-nothing terms may also act in equally extreme ways. They may, for example, swing between complete abstinence and binges, or between workaholism and doing nothing. All-or-nothing thinking and addiction can go together. For example, the belief that nothing will ever get better for them can lead a person to drink excessively, or to abuse, or to become addicted to other substances such as drugs or nicotine.

For people with all-or-nothing diet mindsets, these often actually result in overeating and an unhealthy obsession with food.

All-or-nothing thinking can play a substantial role in the development and worsening of clinical depression. In extreme cases, a person may view suicide as their only way out of what they see as an impossible situation; they fail to consider any middle ground.

About All or Nothing Thinking

How to manage all-or-nothing thinking

All-or-nothing thinking is a habit, and like any other habit, you need to notice it to be able to break it. Once noticed, fortunately, there are things that you can do about it.

When all-or-nothing thinking takes place, reality is nowhere to be found. This way of thinking is limiting and inhibits the ability to moderate emotions. Overcoming all-or-nothing thinking means taking on a new perspective. By first recognising that most of life exists in shades of grey and that very few people or situations are ever perfect or disastrous, totally good or bad, or a complete success or failure, then it will be easier to bring positive and negative perceptions together to consider the whole.

Once you know that you are thinking about something in an unhelpful way, dig into that. Write down what happened, what it means to you, and your proof of your final assumption.

Pay attention to the things that you say and the way that you think. In the majority of situations there are more than just two polar opposite possible outcomes; begin thinking in terms of shades of grey or the middle ground. What comes between the best and worst outcomes? Is it really the end of the world that you missed the bus to work? In doing this when you catch yourself doing all-or-nothing thinking you will avoid thinking in extreme terms, and decrease self-judgement and harsh criticism of others.

Also pay attention to situations or feelings that tend to lead to all-or-nothing thinking. This can help you to recognise when the thought pattern is beginning.

Rephrase your use of absolute words. Instead of using statements that use words such as good and bad, or right and wrong, try to replace these words or add a but, for example: “Today might have been a bad day, but not every day is bad, other days have been better and some have been good”.

Whenever possible, do not allow yourself to use the following words when thinking about a task that you have completed or an interaction that you have had:

  • Always
  • Never
  • All
  • Every
  • Everyone
  • Success
  • Failure
  • Right
  • Wrong
  • Good
  • Bad

Instead, try to find some different, more accurate adjectives to use, such as, but not limited to:

  • Often
  • Sometimes
  • Several
  • Many
  • Numerous
  • Achievement
  • Disappointment
  • Factual
  • Unsuitable
  • Better
  • Worse

Focus on alternative outcomes in situations; instead of thinking about an extreme negative outcome, try to focus on a less negative one or even a positive option. For example, if the shop has sold out of your favourite fruit, see it as an opportunity to try something else, or to save the money that you would have spent.

Embrace any mistakes that you make (and remember that we all make mistakes from time to time) and learn from them. List the possibilities rather than the absolutes, and identify the emotions that you feel when you are going through an experience. If and when you make a mistake, do not let it define who you are as a person. For example, if you burn your food while cooking dinner, do not allow yourself to say, “I am a bad cook”; instead, acknowledge that it was a mistake and move on.

Question any rules you have set yourself; who says that you can’t have a late night during the week, or that having a slice of birthday cake will destroy your diet plan? Strict rules like these are frequently rooted in all-or-nothing thinking because you are either “all in” or “all out”.

Mindfulness helps you observe your thoughts without judgement and be more present in the moment. Try breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help.

If you are struggling with all-or-nothing thinking, particularly if it is affecting your mental wellbeing, or interfering with your recovery from substance or alcohol addiction, you may want to get professional help. Therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, which aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).

Final thoughts

When we get trapped in all-or-nothing thinking, it is always helpful to get another perspective on whatever is going on, and other people might also be able to show us the nuance of the situation, the grey areas that we may have overlooked. In many cases, we find that the situation is not as bad as we thought, or that we are not the failure that we have considered ourselves to be. Our brain and thought process is simply making us feel that way.

However, remember that the key to overcoming all-or-nothing thinking is to set achievable and sustainable goals, not all-or-nothing targets. Small lapses and mistakes along the way are to be expected, so don’t label yourself as a failure for that misstep. After all, most people do engage in this type of thinking from time to time, but most recognise it as an unhealthy way of thinking and keep it in check.

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About the author

Megan Huziej

Megan has worked with CPD Online College since August 2020, she is in charge of content production, as well as planning, managing and delegating tasks. Megan works closely with Freelance Writers - Voice Artists - Companies and individuals to create the most appropriate and relevant content as well as also using and managing SEO. She gained her Business Administration Level 3 qualification over the duration of being at CPD Online College as well. Outside of work Megan loves to venture to different places and eateries as well as spending quality time with friends and family.



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