We have all probably experienced a moment where some issue or obstacle overwhelmed us, and we thought, “If I don’t do x, then I might as well not bother” or “If x happens, I’m a failure.” These types of thoughts can be especially prevalent in situations where the stakes are high or where we are trying to accomplish something in a negative headspace, such as exhaustion, stress, depression. The all-or-nothing, also known as black-or-white thinking, can easily become a pattern that we fall into regularly.
Why? Because it’s simple. There are so many complexities to how we live these days; how we perceive others, good intentions vs. disappointing results, social norms, the impact of technology, the health of the planet, etc. It can be overwhelming to determine whether something is “good” or “bad” when evaluating a set of nuances. In our need to understand or categorize a situation, a person, or circumstance, we may default to black-and-white thinking in an attempt to “solve” the question of “how we should feel” or “who is right?” or “what is true?.” Black vs. White is much easier to identify than shades of gray.
Examples of this kind of thought process can include very strong statements that eliminate the idea of subjectivity or subscribe only to a narrow set of standards. For example, “I am either smart or not” or “I am either successful, or I am failing.” In this headspace, it is easy to tell ourselves then, “If I make one mistake, then I am incompetent.” There is no room for any misstep in all-or-nothing thinking. “I hurt my friend’s feelings; it must mean I am selfish.”
How does all or nothing thinking show up in relationships?
This type of thinking can limit and deteriorate communication and conflict resolution. Communication and conflict resolution can be difficult enough to navigate without the added obstacle of all-or-nothing thinking. Black-and-white thinking can get in the way of resolving conflicts because you think that in every conflict, there is one person who is right and one who is wrong. This type of thinking feeds into the blame game; it becomes essential to know whose “fault” it is, which can get in the way of you distributing responsibility fairly and equally. When you are of the mindset that the other person is at fault in all-or-nothing thinking, then the flip side is that you didn’t do anything wrong; you won’t take any responsibility.
In the reverse situation, if your all-or-nothing thinking is saying that the issue was all your fault, then you can be too consumed with shame and guilt to solve the problem effectively. Instead, you may be engaged in other unhelpful behaviors such as excessively apologizing or not asserting the other person’s role in the conflict.
Three problems caused by your all-or-nothing thinking:
1. It increases anxiety and depression:
The way you think affects the way you act, according to the Cognitive-Behavioral model. If your thought process, and therefore actions, reflect an idea of either good or bad, with nothing in between, then patterns of thought will become compensatory action. You will be worried all the time about “making mistakes.” You will feel that if something is not flawless, then it is wrong. This can make the entire process of day-to-day living, working, and goal setting an endless parade of stress and worry, and the “disappointing” results can lead to depression. When there is no room to have setbacks, miscalculate, or be wrong, entire events become clouded with negativity and defeat. The thought process becomes: if it wasn’t 100% great, then it was terrible. That is no way to speak to yourself when working on or toward anything!
2. It causes procrastination, self-doubt, and indecision:
When it comes to your goals and achievements, viewing them in black-and-white terms does not create motivation but instead creates avoidance. When you think there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, you can become easily discouraged and distracted by any setbacks, challenges, and mishaps. All-or-nothing thinking such as “this is not going the right way” or “it has to be perfect, otherwise it is a total waste of time” can cause destructive behaviors such as delaying starting or completing tasks, indecision, and/or excessive checking of your work. All attempts to achieve or learn new things become chores to be completed, rather than opportunities to explore and investigate. It is very common to avoid completing a dreaded chore, especially if you feel that you won’t be pleased with your work in the end.
3. It hurts your self-confidence when you don’t celebrate your accomplishments:
When we subscribe to all-or-nothing thinking, we fall into the trap of setting very high, and often impossible, standards and relegating our work into two categories: achievement or abject failure. There is a reason it is recommended that a goal be broken down into steps so that you can celebrate each milestones. This allows us to provide ourselves with positive reinforcement throughout the work and our progress as we do it.
All-or-nothing thinking doesn’t leave any room to celebrate running a mile without stopping because the goal is ten miles. All the work in the interim “doesn’t count” in all-or-nothing thinking, which means that we don’t applaud ourselves for the majority of the process. Everything we achieve before the ten-mile marker becomes “a failure to run ten miles.” In what world would we be able to think highly of ourselves if this is the context?
This can apply to all aspects of life: grades on projects, annual reviews at work, lifestyle goals, and so forth. It values results over improvement, commitment, dedication, tenacity, and intention. Therefore, these exceptional qualities of making a pledge, showing up, continuing to try, and wanting to make a situation better are overlooked or looked down upon.
It can seem as though there are several examples of times when it would make sense and benefit us to think in black-and-white terms. But this is a limiting factor of thinking with this all-or-nothing mindset: there is no room for intent, context, or accident. Morality is often messy, convoluted by our standards and how we define an act. For example, someone who steals a loaf of bread from a multi-billion-dollar company to feed his hungry child is committing a crime, but various people would have various opinions about how “wrong” the crime was. This is where we are tempted to simplify our thinking; we would like to have consistent and secure views about things, and diverse scenarios belie our ability to do so.
In our day-to-day lives, we may find our thoughts overwhelmed or compounded by negative events, perceptions, or memories. This can make us especially susceptible to being ruthless when determining an arbitrary “outcome,” whether that is how we view our achievements at home, or work, or in the community sphere. This can cause us to pigeonhole others in the same way, not allowing for flexibility when it comes to empathizing and sympathizing with others’ struggles or decisions. The lack of wiggle room in all-or-nothing thinking in which people, events, companies, situations, etc., can be diverse and not necessarily “good” or “bad” can make us unforgiving and challenging to contend with.
These are some of the problems caused by black-and-white thinking, and this is how to break the habit.
How to break all-or-nothing thinking:
1. Practice Dialectical thinking:
Dialectical thinking is the ability to view issues from multiple angles and determine the most reasonable opinion or explanation. It is a great tool against all-or-nothing thinking because dialectical thinking allows you to merge two seemingly opposite thoughts and experiences.
Known as “the power of ‘and’, dialectical thinking brings two seemingly contradictory experiences together with the use of the word ‘and.’ Where in the past, you might have used ‘but’ or ‘or’ or ‘so,’ you instead use the word ‘and.’
For example, when you pursue a goal and end up falling short of it, instead of thinking, “it wasn’t perfect, so that means it was a failure,” dialectical thinking can help you view your experience by saying, “I did my best and I need to do better.” Instead of saying, “I didn’t reach my goal, but I’ll try again,” you would say, “I didn’t reach my goal, and I’ll try again.” Instead of thinking, “I am a failure,” think “sometimes I fail, and sometimes I succeed.” There is inherent positivity in joining our thoughts with ‘and, rather than words with a more negative connotation.
2. Take small action:
How ironic would it be to try to eliminate all-or-nothing thinking in an all-or-nothing manner? Pick a category of your daily living and start there, perhaps household chores. If you are someone who has trouble getting started on tidying up because you feel like you’ll never finish it, begin by picking one area to keep clear. An example of this can be that you choose to make sure you’ve done the dishes every evening before bed. This does not tidy the entire house, but it frees up a surface that is used daily and creates more time in the morning to prepare and enjoy breakfast. Perhaps, over time, you may decide also to do your breakfast dishes before you leave for work or school.
Another example might be if you want to drink more water during the day and set your goal as 3L daily. Black-and-white thinking would have us believe that we have failed if we don’t manage to drink 3L of water every day. An adjustment would be to add a cup of water daily or make our goal to drink 2-3L of water per day. Some days, if you get stuck in traffic on Ventura Blvd longer than you planned to, you might not get to refill your water bottle as much as you had planned; that’s okay! “I didn’t have access to enough water today, and tomorrow will be better.” Utilizing dialectical thinking, we can break down our tasks and goals into pieces and talk to ourselves gently about our progress as we go.
3. Celebrate accomplishments, no matter how small:
Life is not a scorecard of accomplishments and achievements, but celebrating success is a great way to bolster your self-esteem and self-confidence. When you don’t celebrate your progress and effort, you eventually miss out on the opportunity to show yourself that self-love and self-care.
The key to healthily celebrating accomplishments is to celebrate many aspects of an experience as opposed to just the end result. Everyone will have different goals for themselves; personalizing your journey is a fun way to focus on what you have prioritized. For example, you might put a pebble in a jar every time you get a high score on customer feedback and treat yourself to something fun for your office once the pebbles pass a specific line. This may not be the big promotion you are working toward, but it is a part of your journey up the corporate ladder that can be celebrated now.
You might make a chart and use stickers to show every time you go for a walk after dinner or every time you have no clothes laying around. You might decide that you’ll take action of celebration for every x stickers you put on the chart. You might just make a note on your phone or mark it on an electronic calendar. It doesn’t have to be a fancy system, but it can also be as fancy as you’d like it to be! The point is that you notice, keep track of, and acknowledge the positive actions and behaviors of your daily life.
Do your best to view your switch from all-or-nothing thinking as an opportunity to have more flexibility, more joy, and more peace in your life. Remind yourself along the way that there is no perfect way to do anything, let alone a perfect way to let go of the perfectionism and rigidity of black-and-white thought patterns. Talk to the people you trust and involve them in your journey (especially your celebrations!) if that will help you to feel more supported. Think of the people you love most and how many
shades of gray comprise their personalities, their morals, their standards, their achievements, and a myriad of other components of who they are and the lives they lead. Remind yourself that not one of them is 100% of anything, that you love them just the same, and that you are deserving of that same imperfect, convoluted expression of self.
Embracing You Therapy Group Practice
Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, EMBRACING imperfections to create a gentler place for CALM in your life.
At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije and Cindy Sayani, AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns include Anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression or anxiety.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress, and then let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way.