All or nothing thinking is a common cognitive distortion that involves viewing the world as a binary. It divides experiences into categories of either “black or white” and “right or wrong.”
Thinking in a binary can influence how you interpret and respond to the world. All-or-nothing thinking may become an unhelpful pattern because it doesn’t always accurately reflect our complex reality. It may also lead you to experience anxiety and pessimism.
A cognitive distortion is a pattern of thoughts that most often is not based on facts. It may make you see your world more negatively than it really is.
The all-or-nothing distortion involves perceiving the world as a binary — a pair of opposites. Also known as polarized, dichotomous, or black-and-white thinking, it’s the tendency to see things as “either/or.”
“It’s between two extremes,” according to Paige Dyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Gainesville, Florida. “There are no other possibilities.”
Cognitive distortions, in general, may affect your mood and the way you behave.
“Our thinking directly impacts our emotional state, and how we behave is based on our thinking and emotions,” explains Dyer.
All-or-nothing thinking has been associated with symptoms of:
When evaluating your achievements, polarized thinking can reinforce a binary of success or failure. It may lead you to give into all-or-nothing perfectionism. For example, “If I don’t always get an A in my exams, I’m a failure.”
Appearance, and social comparison, are other examples of how all-or-nothing thinking may affect self-perception, says Dyer.
“When a teen sees retouched images on social media, an automatic thought may be: ‘My body doesn’t look like this; I hate my body,’” adds Dyer. “Or, ‘If I looked like her, I’d love my body.’”
Judging yourself based on the extremes of love and hate can make it hard to identify features you like about your body, Dyer added. “There’s no middle ground of, ‘I like my eyes, and I’d like to change my smile.'”
Motivation and self-defeating behaviors
An all-or-nothing mentality may lead to avoidant behaviors. Conscious or not, it may promote making excuses to reduce effort.
- “I can’t finish everything, I won’t do anything.”
- “My alarm didn’t go off, I will cancel the meeting.”
Depression and hopelessness
People living with symptoms of depression may tend to use all-or-nothing thinking, alongside catastrophizing and overgeneralization.
“When we feel hopeless, we become stuck in the feeling,” explains Dyer. “It’s hard to identify alternatives.”
Examples of all-or-nothing thinking in this scenario may include:
- “I never feel happy; I always feel sad.”
- “Everything is terrible; nothing good ever happens.”
- “It’s always going to be like this.”
Trauma and blame
The all-or-nothing cognitive distortion may be linked to experiences of trauma, especially in childhood. These traumatic events can impact the way you organize and interpret information from your surroundings.
Children sometimes blame themselves for how a traumatic experience has also affected the family. “The child may see their mom is negatively impacted because of what happened, and think: ‘It’s my fault. If I had told someone sooner, my mom would be OK.”
All-or-nothing thinking patterns can affect interpersonal dynamics, from how you see your relationship to how you view the other person. It can also set unrealistic expectations and stunt opportunities for growth, Dyer says.
A few examples include:
- “You never ask how I’m feeling.”
- “You always raise your voice.”
“It limits your ability to see the exceptions that exist,” she adds. “If you’re anticipating it’s never going to improve, it never will.”
If automatic thoughts can influence how you feel, you can learn to shift your thinking patterns by looking at your thoughts instead of through them.
You can learn to manage all-or-nothing thinking patterns by:
1. Mastering metacognition
Metacognition refers to intentionally noticing automatic patterns of thought. It starts with an awareness of your internal dialogue, storytelling, and cognitive processes.
Try to look for thoughts containing extreme words (i.e., “always,” “never”) and mental narratives painted with a polarizing, pessimistic outlook.
It may help to check if certain scenarios encourage all-or-nothing thinking, such as social or professional situations. Try to identify when it occurs (i..e., when you wake up, when you’re stressed).
2. Preparing for bad days
Emotional regulation is the ability to recognize emotions in yourself and others, and to express them appropriately. It may allow you to control your reactions when you face a challenging situation.
One way to develop emotional regulation is to learn how to soothe yourself, so you can use those strategies when you face one of those situations that may take you to see things in black or white.
3. Exploring “yes, and”
Broadening binary thinking can improve cognitive flexibility. If you’re interested in learning how to stop polarized thinking, try to engage an extreme thought by exploring it with “yes, and.”
- “Yes, I faced difficult things, and I also experienced good moments this week.”
- “Yes, I’m a good person, and sometimes I make mistakes.”
4. Asking and reframing
Reframing techniques replace automatic thoughts with more accurate, balanced thoughts. This is an effective strategy in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Through trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), Dyer helps kids to analyze and reassess negative automatic thoughts by questioning if the thought is 100% accurate or helpful.
For people with trauma, the focus expands to the trauma narrative. If they can change their thought to be slightly more accurate or helpful, Dyer said, a more neutral thought is created.
“It can lead to different emotions and behavior in the moment,” she added. “And the development of a different meaning.”
5. Reaching out for professional support
Finding a therapist can provide you with a safe space to express how you feel and work on cognitive distortions and negative thinking.
All-or-nothing thinking is a common cognitive distortion that results in seeing your world in black or white or in complete opposites. These thoughts may affect the way you feel and see the world around you because they’re often not based on evidence.
You can manage all-or-nothing thinking by reassessing your negative thoughts, looking for evidence that debunks your thoughts, and reaching out for professional support.