All or Nothing Thinking: Why It’s Important to Understand What It Is and Change It

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“All or nothing” or “black and white” thinking are known to be cognitive distortions. It’s considered to be a distorted way of thinking which can be associated with developing anxiety, hopelessness and depression.

The basic idea is that whenever there is a need for a situation to be assessed (especially if it happens to be a challenging one), a person might hold the belief that there are only two possible outcomes: Usually a worst case scenario or “okay”.

Of course we can casually talk about things being “good or bad” or describe things with exaggeration, but it can become problematic when this is primarily the way an individual has a tendency to think.

This is an example that I often use:
Certain ways of thinking can be beneficial at certain times. For situations and maybe work that requires very specific analytical thinking (like mathematical calculations or coding), applying “all or nothing” type thinking can be extremely helpful.

But not every situation requires that level of strict analysis.

And applying “black and white” thinking to all situations is like using a hammer for every situation that requires a tool. For instance, if you’re looking for a saw to cut down a piece of lumber, a hammer is not going to be the best tool for the job.

A hammer (and any tool and skill) is a good tool and skill to have, but it can be limiting if that’s the only tool and skill that’s used.

One way to identify that you’re engaging in “all or nothing” thinking is if you often find yourself saying “always”, “can’t”, “everyone”, “no one” a lot. This can often be a sign of absolute thinking which might be because of your tendency to engage in the cognitive distortion of polarized thinking.

Another term that’s used is “dichotomous” thinking. It’s what happens when you take a specific event and turn it into a global generalization.

Learning to replace exaggerated thoughts with more realistic assessments will help you to deal with setbacks and feel more hopeful about the future.

Steps to Better Understand and Change Your Polarized Thinking

When all or nothing thinking becomes chronic, it can have far reaching effects on your life. However, there are simple actions you can take each day to gradually achieve more moderation.

Try these techniques:

  1. Change your vocabulary. If you find that you speak in unconditional terms, it is likely reinforcing “all-or-nothing” thinking. I would try replacing words like “always” and “everyone” with descriptions that are more specific and closer to the facts.
  2. Consider what your actual options are. You might try changing your perspective about one area in your life, and once you see that it is helpful, other areas of your life will probably follow. It could be helpful to start by focusing on your “all or nothing” thinking that you might have in your relationships or your health.
  3. Ask for feedback. If you have trouble recognizing when you’re engaged in exaggerated thinking, ask friends and family for feedback. They may be able to see things more clearly than you do.
  4. Seek therapy or counselling. “All-or-nothing” thinking can sometimes be traced back to what you may have previously experienced or learned from childhood, so it can be useful to seek help to sort out the past and move on.

When you are able to know that most situations and individuals including yourself are a mixture of positive and negative qualities, you’ll be able to make more rational, and informed, decisions.

When you can recognize that you are engaging in “all-or-nothing” thinking and begin to change it, it broadens your ability think more openly so you can think more effectively, and avoid the stressors that can come with “black and white” thinking.

A resource I highly recommend to sharpen your thinking skills is a short book called, Five Elements of Effective Thinking. “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking presents practical, lively, and inspiring ways for you to become more successful through better thinking. The idea is simple: You can learn how to think far better by adopting specific strategies. Brilliant people aren’t a special breed–they just use their minds differently.”

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