How to Break the Painful Habit of “All or Nothing” Thinking
Learn to overcome cognitive distortions.
Posted Jul 24, 2019
In 2014, I wrote an post on “How Distorted Thinking Increases Stress and Anxiety.” It covered the 10 most common cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking. They’re easy to define and sometimes easy to recognize in ourselves. However, due to lifelong habits we’ve developed in our thinking, they’re not always easy to overcome. It can be done, though. All of the cognitive distortions are worth learning about because, unchecked, they can make us quite miserable.
One of the 10 cognitive distortions, all or nothing thinking, is the subject of this post.
When you engage in all or nothing thinking, you evaluate your life in extreme terms: It’s either perfect or a disaster. You’re either a total success or a total failure. This is distorted thinking because life is a mixed bag for all of us.
Going to one of these two extremes when evaluating your life is fertile ground for self-blame and even self-hatred, because what you’re really doing is demanding perfection from yourself, since the only alternative you’re willing to consider is failure, and no one is happy with that.
All or nothing thinking can take two forms.
1. You don’t give yourself the leeway to do anything in a way that you evaluate as less than an “A”—or even an “A+."
I used to be this way about my performance in the classroom. Even though I loved teaching, I came close to quitting because I didn’t think I was doing an A+ job.
This unfair (and uncompassionate) demand that you be anything less than perfect can come up in both your work environment and in things you do for pleasure, such as drawing or embroidering or playing a musical instrument.
This type of all or nothing thinking can also derail any attempt to help yourself. For example, if you’re dieting or trying to exercise everyday, if you go off the diet once or skip exercising for just one day, you give yourself an “F” and, in disgust, give up on the undertaking altogether. (Self-blame is almost sure to follow.)
2. You treat yourself like a failure if you’re not feeling well enough, physically or mentally, to perform a task you’d planned to do.
This particular form of all or nothing thinking is an ongoing challenge for me as a person who lives with chronic pain and illness. I sometimes have to remind myself that I’m not a failure just because, on a particular day, I wasn’t able to perform a task I’d planned to do—even something as simple as the laundry.
Even worse, when you engage in this type of all or nothing thinking, you can convince yourself that, because some minor task didn’t get done one day, the whole household is falling apart.
What follows are two suggestions for overcoming this painful and unrealistic standard that many of us hold ourselves to. In discussing these suggestions, I’ll refer to the two types discussed above: #1—all or nothing thinking regarding how you performed a task and #2—all or nothing thinking regarding what you’re able to do.
First, evoke compassion for yourself. Self-compassion is my go-to practice whenever I start judging myself harshly. I hope you’ll make it your go-to practice too. All it requires is that you do whatever you can to ease your mental suffering. In simpler terms, it means being nice to yourself.
How you treat yourself is one of the few things you control in life. In my view, there’s never a good reason not to be kind to yourself. Treating yourself with compassion helps you break the habit of all or nothing thinking because, when you’re kind to yourself, it’s easier to see the ways in which you’re not kind to yourself. This enables you to become aware of the emotional harm caused by repeatedly telling yourself (about whatever the issue is): “It’s all or nothing…that’s what I require of myself.”
Let’s return to the two ways this cognitive distortion shows up in our thinking. 1. You don’t give yourself the leeway to do anything in a way that you evaluate as less than an “A”—or even an “A+.” The compassionate response to a less than perfect performance would be to gently say to yourself something like: “No one does an ‘A’ job on everything. It’s not fair to demand from myself what I don’t demand from others. I did the best I could, and that’s all I can fairly ask of myself.”
Self-compassion is also called for in example 2. You treat yourself like a failure if you’re not feeling well enough, physically or mentally, to perform a task you’d planned to do. Nothing positive comes from treating yourself this way. The compassionate response would be something like: “I’d hoped to do the laundry today, but I’m in too much pain. That’s not my fault. I’ll do it when I feel better.”
Second, focus on what you did do well and on what you did accomplish. When you engage in all or nothing thinking, you discount as unimportant or unworthy all that you did do well and all that you did accomplish. Think about that for a few moments: discounting the positive in this way is both unfair to you and self-destructive because it leaves you feeling like a failure.
Again, sticking with our two types of all or nothing thinking, regarding #1, when you think about how you performed a task, focus on what you’re pleased about: “When class was over, I did a great job answering students' questions,” or “I stuck to my diet four out of five days.”
Regarding #2, say to yourself something like: “I may not have done the laundry, but it’s amazing that, given how much pain I’m in, I made the bed and showered.”
In both examples, if you’re in the habit of going straight to self-criticism, you may have to think hard at first to come up with the positives. But they’re there, and they’re worth the effort to find. Why make yourself feel worse when you have the ability to make yourself feel better?
To summarize, with all or nothing thinking, as soon as you fall below 100 percent in your estimation, that 100 percent turns to zero. And so, when I was teaching, if I thought my class performance was in the “B+” range, I gave myself an “F.” Or, if you’re trying to lose weight, when you think in terms of all or nothing, you’ll give yourself an “F” if you go off your diet for one day. Not only is that not a valid way to evaluate your life (100 percent and 0 are not the only percentages available to you!), but you’re being unfairly harsh and unkind to yourself.
I hope you’ll resolve to look for that middle ground by becoming aware of when you’re thinking in absolute all or nothing terms. You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache.
Here are two more posts on cognitive distortions: