Understanding All or Nothing Thinking
An overview on the cognitive disorder known as all or nothing thinking
There are times in everyone’s life where it seems like nothing is going their way. Their favorite football team keeps losing, they don't like the way their hair looks, or their local McDonald's seems to never have a working ice cream machine. It's times like these that people may start thinking in extremes. "The Jets will never make the playoffs" or "My hair always looks so greasy."
When a person starts thinking like this it can lead to a downward spiral into a world where everything seems black or white. The burger you had for lunch was either the best burger you've ever had or the worst thing you have ever eaten.
Thinking like this occasionally isn't going to skew your perception on the world, but when a person thinks in extremes on a consistent basis their whole way of thinking becomes faulty. The world is either perfect or completely disastrous, there is no in between.
When thinking in these extremes becomes the norm for a person, doctors say they have a cognitive disorder called all or nothing thinking. Someone with this type of cognitive disorder will often say things to themselves like, "I will never be successful." Thinking this way puts up an extra barrier to climb over that doesn't necessarily have to be there. Creating this barrier can lead to a handful of mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression. Because of this it's important to identify when yourself or people you are close with show signs of all or nothing thinking.
Examples of all or nothing thinking
Mike usually stays in on the weekends, but one weekend he decided to go to a house party down the street. He gets there and begins to get a bit anxious about talking to people and fitting in. About an hour goes by and he feels a bit out of place, getting frustrated with the lack of conversation he is having. He decides to leave the party early and on his way home he thinks, “I am always so awkward… no one wants to be around me… I will never be able to fit in.” He gives up on the idea of going to parties in the future and accepts that he might always be alone.
Sophie was diagnosed with panic disorder with claustrophobia six years ago. Since then, she has been practicing her self-care and has seen positive results. She feels much more comfortable with her phobia and hasn’t had a panic attack in almost a year.
One day she decides to go to an aquarium with her friends when she begins to feel physical symptoms of panic and anxiety. She tries her breathing techniques, but still has a panic attack. Sophie's friends help her, and they all leave the aquarium early. Sophie is still quite upset and tells herself that she is a burden on her friends and that she will never overcome her condition.
Dangers of all or nothing thinking
Mike and Sophie were stuck thinking in extremes. The danger with this type of thinking is it can hinder a person’s efforts when doing anything. In Mike’s case, his black-or-white thinking made him give up his future efforts in trying to socialize. This is true for most people struggling with all or nothing thinking, they might be ready and fired up to do something, but as soon as one thing goes wrong, they think they won’t be able to succeed anymore. They start to push the task off for later or give up on it entirely.
All or nothing thinking sets you up for failure. A person struggling with this only judges success on perfection. If a task is anything but perfect, it will be viewed as a failure. Perfection is arguably impossible to achieve when performing any task, so you can imagine that a person that only judges their successes this way can't recognize any of their accomplishments and often view themselves as a failure.
The pressure of always having to be perfect is unbarring. This self-absorbed pressure makes any sort of setback seem like it is the end of the world. These setbacks are so overwhelming that the thought of continuing the task will create tremendous anxiety. This can make it hard to have that same drive you had when you started.
It can become a vicious cycle of starting, stopping, starting, and stopping again. Feeling like a failure gets all too familiar and getting stuck becomes the norm. This is when symptoms of anxiety and depression can start showing up. What's the point of even getting out of bed if I'm just going to fail?
Overcoming all or nothing thinking
The first step in overcoming all or nothing thinking is identifying the fact you are thinking in extremes. This is easier said than done. Thinking in extremes on a consistent bases hinders a person’s ability to realize life isn't black-or-white. It's important to remind yourself or others who might be struggling with all or nothing thinking that nothing in this world is a complete failure or a complete success.
Even the worst of situations have at least one positive. The key to realizing this starts with identifying the black-or-white thoughts and being honest with yourself. Whether it's all or nothing thinking or a different cognitive disorder, the healthiest thing to do is accept it for what it is.
It will always be easier to ignore the problem or deny that it could be happening to you. Life is hard, and it's okay to not be okay. The only way to get better is to accept what's really going on. "I have been stuck thinking in extremes... now how do I change it?"
If Mike were to identify that he was thinking in extremes he would realize that he is not always awkward. He would realize that he has no problem talking to his parents or his siblings. Instead of saying he is always awkward, he could say he can be awkward in certain situations. This gives Mike the opportunity to grow and learn from the times he didn't think of himself as awkward.
All or nothing thinking forces a person to judge themselves on a scale that only consists of perfection and failure. The harsh reality is no one is perfect. Expecting perfection will only lead to disappointment. Instead of looking for perfection, try looking for progress.
Putting your thoughts on a scale that measures progress instead of perfection, gives a person the opportunity to improve and succeed. Despite what happened to Sophie, she can be proud of herself for going to the aquarium in the first place and going almost a year without a panic attack.
If she were to have these thoughts instead of thinking in extremes, she would realize that even though her experience was frightening, she has made tremendous progress and she has the strength to continue making progress.
For some, all or nothing thinking can consume their whole life without them even knowing it. When trying to get better, what works for me or works for someone else might not work for you. It's important to remember that any sort of progress should be looked at as a success. Continuous progress, no matter how small it is, will eventually lead to you achieving your goals.
If you notice yourself or someone you're close with showing signs of all or nothing thinking, a different cognitive disorder, or mental illness, remember that getting better is very much possible. Whether its talking to a professional, speaking to a family member, or just watching YouTube videos on ways to help, there will be something that works for you, and you'll see that the world is not so black-or-white.
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Great perspective. I think the first thing to consider with these type of blanket statements is that they are very rarely accurate. There are few absolutes in life and striking words like never, always etc. from your vocabulary is a great start in avoiding being caught up in the cycle of all or nothing.