“Why has everything got to be so black and white?” was a question my husband asked me one day, during one of my infamous emotional outbursts. Something I was organising hadn’t entirely gone to plan and so I was adamant the whole event was ruined. I wanted to cancel it. Little did I know, I was experiencing all-or-nothing thinking, a common cognitive distortion for those who experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or other mental health conditions.
If the event wasn’t going to be perfect, the next rational step for me was to cancel it. There were no shades of grey. The all-or-nothing thought process splits everything into extremes, and usually only ever focuses on the downsides. When I discussed my black or white thinking with my CBT therapist, he explained it was a common cognitive distortion for people, that I could combat with the right tools. With this in mind, I thought I’d share some of those tools with you…
What are cognitive distortions?
Before we jump right into the way to combat all-or-nothing thinking, let’s just quickly understand what cognitive distortions are. The word itself sounds awful, doesn’t it?! However, they’re more common than you might think, with plenty of people experiencing them regularly, and there’s a range of different reasons as to why we might experience them. Essentially, cognitive distortions are thought patterns that cause us to see ourselves and the world around us in an inaccurate way. Unfortunately, they’re almost always negative, and they can often become habitual.
When we continuously experience these negative thinking patterns, it can become ingrained in us and create a new kind of reality. One where we really do think we’re a failure or that nothing ever goes our way. Challenging these thoughts are the key to getting rid of them once and for all, but it can take time. If you experience all-or-nothing thinking on a regular basis, then it can have a negative impact on your self-esteem, confidence, anxiety levels, depression, and overall well-being. With that in mind, let’s see how we can tackle that all-or-nothing thinking once and for all!
Examples of all-or-nothing thinking
Let’s take a look at some of the most common examples of all-or-nothing thinking, which you may recognise in your own thought patterns. Don’t beat yourself up if you recognise any of these; this is just your first step towards changing your inner monologue to a more confident and positive one.
Most all-or-nothing thoughts include words like always, never, perfect, impossible or ruined. See if you recognise any of these ways of thinking in yourself:
Always – “I always mess up.”
If something doesn’t quite go to plan, do you instantly believe it’s because you ‘always’ mess up? This is an extremely common word with all-or-nothing thinking, because you feel as though you’re always doing something wrong or you’ll always be a certain way.
Never – “Things never go right for me.”
Alongside always is ‘never,’ another common word in the all-or-nothing mindset. If something goes wrong, you may believe that the odds are never in your favour, that things never go right for you. You may also think that you’ll never be good enough…
Perfect – “It’s just not perfect; I’m not good enough.”
A prime example was with the event I was planning, which I mentioned at the beginning of this article. One tiny thing went wrong, and it wasn’t perfect. As it wasn’t perfect, I wanted to cancel the whole thing. There was no in-between; it was either perfect or nothing.
Impossible – “This is impossible; I can’t do it.”
When we face challenging tasks, it can often feel impossible. However, this could be another case of all-or-nothing thinking, especially if you convince yourself that it really is impossible. Do you give up if you think something can’t be done or do you try to find a solution? If it’s the former, then you could be experiencing black and white thinking.
Ruined – “I’ve ruined everything.”
The party is ruined, the job interview is ruined, my life is ruined… If you jump to the conclusion that everything is ruined because something didn’t quite go to plan, then that could also be all-or-nothing thinking. Once again, it’s looking at something in the extreme and feeling like a failure.
7 ways to combat black and white thinking
Now we know what all-or-nothing thinking is and have seen some examples, it’s time to find ways to overcome these unhelpful thought patterns. Here are seven techniques I learnt from CBT therapists and experts, that will help you find those shades of grey!
Notice the thoughts
Your first step is to try and notice the negative thoughts the moment they pop into your head. I use the CBT Thought Diary app for this so that I can catch them as soon as they creep in. You’re not beating yourself up for feeling this way; you’re just noticing that you’re experiencing all-or-nothing thinking. The more you take note of when you feel like this, the easier it will be to challenge the negative thoughts as soon as they arrive.
Focus on your strengths and successes
If you feel as though you’re always messing things up or you’re never good enough, then it’s time to take a note of your strengths and successes. This is something I talk about a lot on my podcast, and I think it’s an essential way for people to build their confidence.
By building up our confidence, we can then deal with the underlying issues that may be causing all-or-nothing thinking. Make a list of all your strengths and successes. Keep it somewhere close, so that you can refer back to it whenever you feel those negative emotions creeping in.
Learn to separate self-worth from performance
No one is ever going to be perfect. No one is going to get everything right all of the time. If you’ve messed something up at work, you might want to believe that you’re useless, you’re a failure, and nothing ever goes right in life. However, your self-worth and performance are two separate entities.
Try to put the focus on qualities within yourself that boost your own self-esteem and confidence. Write out ten things (not performance-related) that you love about yourself. Ask your friends and family for what they love about you too. It could be that you’re full of empathy and kind, or that you’re honest and loyal. A mistake at work does NOT change these incredible qualities you possess.
Are you limiting your options?
There’s a reason it’s called black and white thinking, and that’s because there usually are no shades of grey. If it’s either perfect or cancelled – as was the case with the event I was planning – then you may end up missing out on so much in life. When you feel all-or-nothing thinking taking over, try to consider your options.
Force yourself to write out a list of all the other options. Try to get as many down on paper, however silly they might seem. You’ll slowly start to realise that the all-or-nothing mindset isn’t the only way to think. There ARE other options out there.
Use ‘and’ instead of ‘or’
When you’re thinking in all-or-nothing terms, there’s a key word that stands out. The or. It’s either this or that, never this and that. However, challenge yourself to use the word ‘and’ more often during these negative thought patterns.
For example, “I know I had some difficulties this week, and I still managed to hit my work goal,” or “I know that I have some amazing qualities, and I can be a bit snappy.” Just changing this key word can help us become less judgemental of ourselves.
This is one of my favourite things to do when it comes to all types of cognitive distortions, but particularly all-or-nothing thinking. Again, I use the CBT Thought Diary app for this, but you can do it on a piece of paper, a journal, or any note-taking app on your phone. In order to question all-or-nothing thinking, ask yourself these:
- Where is my proof? Where’s the evidence that I’ve always failed in everything at life? Where’s my proof that things never go right for me? What about all of the things that have gone right or the times I did succeed?
- Which thoughts are facts, and which are assumptions? Is the event really going to be ruined if everything isn’t perfect, or are they my assumptions?
- What are the emotions I felt or am feeling? There may be some negative ones in there, but try to find some positives as well. For example, “I’m nervous that I’ve ruined the event, but I’m still excited that people might enjoy themselves. Therefore, I don’t feel all bad or all good.”
Being kinder to yourself
For many people, all-or-nothing thinking has become habitual and is usually ingrained in our mindset. In order to shake this negative self-worth, we need to practice being kinder to ourselves on a more regular basis. If we can change our inner monologue to one that is full of kindness, it can help stop this all-or-nothing thinking in its tracks.
I recently completed the Headspace lessons on Kindness, which focuses on being kind to ourselves so we can become kinder to others. It made me realise just much I was trash-talking myself and how this seeped into my behaviour with others too. Alternatively, just waking up in the morning and saying a few nice things about yourself is an excellent place to start boosting your confidence.
When and where to seek help
If you’re continually experiencing all-or-nothing thinking, then it may be that some deeper rooted issues need to be tackled before these methods can help. If you’re experiencing depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, then you may wish to get advice from a professional.
CBT therapy can be beneficial to tackle all-or-nothing thinking, especially if it comes from low self-worth or a negative perception of oneself. You can use NHS services in the UK such as Ieso and IAPT. Outside of the UK, it’s best to discuss with a medical professional to see what your options are. There are also private services operating worldwide through companies such as TalkSpace or BetterHelp, which I’ve included below.
All-or-nothing thinking can be a tough mindset to crack, but hopefully, these tips can help stop it in its tracks. Remember, please do seek professional help if you are struggling.
Sources and where to find help
What are cognitive distortions? Healthline