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A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog on something called “Personalization”, which is just one type of cognitive distortion that we all fall into at some point. Personalization is the most common cognitive distortion that I tend to notice with clients in the therapy room, but a close second would have to be what is called, “All or Nothing Thinking”.

“All or nothing” is a pretty common phrase, and the cognitive distortion is pretty self-explanatory. All or Nothing Thinking is basically a pattern of thinking in extremes. We like to think of things as clear-cut, or black and white, without allowing for much gray. In fact, this cognitive distortion is also called “Black and White Thinking” and “Polarized Thinking”. We are constantly conceptualizing things (people, objects, feelings, behaviors, etc) in extremes, and making judgments about them as good or bad, right or wrong, without realizing that most things (though not all) exist on a spectrum. Most things are all good or all bad, but land somewhere a bit less clear.

How does this thinking start?

While no one can say for sure how this particular cognitive distortion comes about, I think it is pretty safe to say that it is something we learn and practice because at some point, and in some capacity, it was helpful. In my opinion, all or nothing thinking would naturally start at a pretty young age as a result of the normal, developmentally appropriate, and healthy skill of categorization. We start categorizing and making judgments almost right away as we learn who is safe (i.e., a responsive caregiver) and what food tastes good. That categorizing continues and develops throughout life as we hear stories of “good guys” and “bad guys” and as we enter into school and fall into a grading system of success or failure. It is something that I think our culture furthers.

Naturally, as we age and develop, the thinking can become less black and white, but sometimes, we can revert back to it as a protective measure. It can be easier to think of things as just good or bad without having to consider alternate variables. It can feel safer- if you can make such a judgment about something or someone, you know how to deal with that. In the gray area, it becomes trickier and more confusing. When people experience traumatic events, this polarized thinking is particularly likely to reappear as a coping strategy for making sense of something awful and confusing so that you can know how to move forward.

All or nothing thinking can happen in all kinds of ways. Here are just a few examples of the ways I’ve seen it show up time and time again.

Perfect vs. Failure

If you don’t get an A, it’s a failure. If there’s any negative feedback in your performance review, it’s a disaster. If your friend can’t be exactly what you need all the time, or if they let you down once, they’re awful friends. If you’re not parenting perfectly (and you never are), then you’re an awful parent. These things aren’t true! The absence of perfection does NOT mean failure. This line of thinking is all too common. Remind yourself of the spectrum, and that maybe you don’t have to expect perfection.

Everything vs. Nothing

If you can’t train to run the marathon, don’t even bother running at all. If you can’t finish all of your homework, why start it. I think this line of thinking goes hand in hand with overwhelm. I see it show up in coping with depression/anxiety or implementing coping strategies all the time. People can feel overwhelmed with the amount of CBT skills or even daily tasks they need to accomplish, that they can simply give up. Try reminding yourself that it’s not everything or nothing. You don’t have to do or even think about all of your coping strategies at once. Just take it one task at a time.

Right vs. Wrong

In a therapy context, I see this happen all the time, especially with feelings and/or coping mechanisms. People think feeling angry is wrong, and feeling graceful is right. That’s not true! Feeling angry isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s not about right or wrong at all! With coping mechanisms, people might make a judgment that their tendency to numb with TV shows is wrong. It’s not necessarily wrong. Again, it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about what is working for you, what is healthy. At some point, maybe watching shows was effective and helpful! But maybe now it’s time to consider other options if it’s not leading to a healthier head space. I think this one is also pretty common in arguments. We want to believe that we are right and the other person is wrong, when realistically we may both be saying some things that are right.

Always vs. Never

This one shows up relatively quite often, and it’s one that is easy to fall into especially with a significant other. “You always leave the lights on”, “you never tell me you miss me”, “you always do this”. Now, maybe the “always” or “never” is true! But more likely than not, we are using that polarized thinking that may not be accurate. If you notice those words cropping up often, pay attention to them and challenge yourself to consider whether or not it is some distorted thinking.

All or nothing thinking is everywhere! It’s pretty common, but it can often be unhelpful and sometimes hurtful. Challenge yourself to notice it, as it shows up in your own thinking and relationships. If you are curious about this or other kinds of unhelpful thinking patterns, get in touch with our therapists. We’d love to explore it with you!

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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