All or nothing thinking (sometimes referred to as black and white thinking but is the same) is where you see things as all one way or all the other. When we think in extremes, it can make it difficult because much of our world is actually in the middle. Most things are not 100% good or 100% bad. All or nothing thinking can trap us into unhealthy habits, make it difficult to change, and harm our relationships.
All or nothing thinking can be identified by picking up on words like either/or, perfect/failure, good/bad, and other polar opposites. When we are unable to find a middle ground in thinking or situations, there is a good chance that we are using all or nothing thinking.
Look over these examples of all or nothing thinking and see if you recognize any of these patterns in your own thinking!
Cognitive Distortions Series
In this series of blog posts I am going to cover common cognitive distortions aka problem thinking.
When I teach group therapy, cognitive distortions is one of my favorite subjects. The way that we think affects our world more than we usually realize.
These common thinking errors seem simple but they are actually difficult to change. Often, we have certain ways of thinking we default to. If one doesn’t resonate with you, another one might.
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but you thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking.”
Examples of All or Nothing Thinking
Here are some examples off all or nothing thoughts:
- I ate 2 cookies and blew my diet. I might as well just give up.
- Everyone is laughing at me.
- Getting a B on a test is a failure.
- If I can’t do it perfectly I won’t do it at all.
- All men are womanizers that lie & cheat.
- All women just want to get married and trap a guy.
- I stumbled over a word so the person I’m talking to must think I’m an idiot.
- I didn’t get into the college of my choice so no college will want me.
- We broke up after 2 years so I completely wasted all that time.
- I didn’t get the promotion so my boss hates me.
- My friend didn’t text me back so she doesn’t want to be friends anymore.
These are just a few examples to illustrate all or nothing thinking.
Spotting All or Nothing Thinking
Years ago in a training class, I learned a great slogan for changing problem thinking: Catch it. Check it. Change it.
Before we can change our thinking errors we need to catch them. For all or nothing thinking, pay attention to when you use words that highlight those extremes. Words like “always” “never” “everyone” “no one” “everything” “failure” “bad” are just a few examples of words that you can catch.
Once you catch the all or nothing thinking, check it to see if it is correct. Let’s check the following all or nothing thinking.
“No one cares about me.”
Is it true that no one cares about you? Not one single person in the entire world? Not one family member or friend?
Most of us do have a few people who care, so in this situation we checked it and we have found that it is inaccurate. Now we have to change it. Change “no one cares about me” by reminding yourself of the person or people who care. “Actually, I know that my sister cares about me and so does my partner.” By changing the thought, we are beginning to change our thinking patterns. When we do this long enough, eventually we train our brains to stop thinking in this way.
“Life isn’t black and white, but you can’t call it colourful either. It is actually what you make of it, so how you look at it matters a lot.”
“If I can’t do it perfectly I will not do it at all.”
Check it: Is perfection actually real? No.
Can anyone do something perfectly? Literally no one.
Is it not worth doing if you cannot do it perfectly? I certainly hope not, otherwise no one should be doing anything!
Would 80% perfect not be fine? In most cases, 80% would be better than most.
Is it better to do it imperfectly than to quit? Absolutely! Trying is always better than quitting.
Change it: “I will do my best because no one is perfect. My best is going to be good enough.”
“All women just want to trap a guy in marriage.”
Check it: Really? ALL women? Every single woman in the world? No.
What about lesbians? They don’t want to trap men.
What about women that don’t want to get married? There a quite a few of those.
Do women really want to trap someone, keep a partner against their will? Probably not.
Change it: “My ex was manipulative and didn’t respect my feelings about marriage but not every woman is like that. Next time I will talk early on about how I have no desire to ever marry.”
How to Combat All or Nothing Thinking
Now that you have a better idea of what black & white thinking looks like, let’s keep using Catch It, Check It, Change It to decide whether or not some of these thinking errors are distorted thinking.
Check it: Do only idiots stumble over words? No.
Hasn’t everyone been tongue-tied before at least once in their life? Of course!
Does everyone but you always know the right thing to say? Definitely not.
Even with messing up, does that one error really mean that the person you are talking to thinks you’re an idiot? Most likely not. If they do, what an judgmental person they must be.
Check it: Are all men womanizers? Definitely not.
Do all men cheat? No.
Will all men cheat if given the opportunity? Nope.
Do all men lie? Most people lie at one time or another, that’s not exclusive to men.
Do men lie most of the time? No.
Change it: “In the past I have picked men who lied and were unfaithful. I will pay more attention to red flags in future relationships.”
Things To Remember
Changing the way that you think takes practice. Repetition might feel hopeless at first but the more that you practice, the more your brain begins to change.
With all cognitive distortions and thinking errors, the best way to start out is by identifying which you tend to use most. Then, pick one to practice changing. If necessary, get the help of a therapist or a trusted friend. Sometimes it is difficult to recognize thinking errors in the moment so it can be helpful to have someone who has a different perspective help you as you begin. While it may be difficult at first, it is worth the effort! Our thoughts build our world – what do you want your world to be?
“When you look at things from a different perspective your thinking begins to change but so often we see things as problems because we refuse to change our perspective.”