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All of nothing thinking is a binary way of thinking in extremes and is common for individuals who experience anxiety. It is one of the most common types of cognitive distortions, which involve assumptions based on minimal evidence.
In addition, it is a thought process that results in judging outcomes as good or bad. A person engaged in all or nothing thought patterns believe they are a complete success or complete failure. A student’s academic record is either perfect or tainted with a grade of a “B.”
All or nothing thinking, also known as “black-and-white thinking” or dichotomous thinking, is problematic because it can spur harsh perspectives of self and others. To demonstrate, an individual judges themselves as worthy and lovable because they are in a romantic partnership or unworthy and unlovable because they are not.
There is no room for anything in the middle ground or the gray area. There is no consideration for nuance, uncertainty or complexity in life experiences.
How does all or nothing thinking develop
Children are taught simplistic concepts to govern behavior. Sharing is good, and hitting is bad. Thinking at the extreme is appropriate in early childhood.
The brain because of how humans evolved is pre-programmed to overemphasize the negative and underestimate the positive. When survival was the only goal, the “caveman” brain through repetition trained itself to constantly scan for threats, and this function remains today, constantly interpreting situations as “Am I safe,” or “Am I threatened?”
The brain categorizes every perception and when it has a tendency to focus on the negative, it increases the chances of binary thinking in absolutes, especially when involving traumatic experience as children. As the brain collects more and more experience as “threats to safety” during early years, the brain and body store these memories in the subconscious mind. Unconscious reactions triggered by these increasingly negative and “unsafe” perceptions are further embedded in the child’s brain.
As we get older, situations get more complex and nuance is often required. Perceiving life in such simplistic black and white terms in adulthood can do more harm than good.
What are the signs of black and white thinking
Thinking in absolute terms is pretty easy to spot. Here are several ways to identify it:
Your thoughts are filled with the words “never,” and “always.” Common examples of absolutist thinking include:
- In romantic relationships: “I will always be single,” or “I will never be in a committed relationship.”
- Negative interpretations:, “it has always been this way,” or “nothing ever goes my way.” The thought, “What is the point of trying?” is a common as well.
You have anxiety issues or other mental health disorders. Typically, individuals who experience anxiety already perceive high amounts of negativity and feel stuck and hopeless at times. Black-and-white thinking can make it spiral downward. Any effort put forward to change that does not work can automatically be deemed as a failure and reinforce other negative thoughts that any action taken to get better is fruitless. As the anxiety worsens, physical manifestations, such as panic attacks or other panic disorders, can begin to occur.
You have low self-esteem. Judging yourself harshly and always focusing on your faults are indicators of all or nothing thought habits. A low self-worth can also make you overly susceptible to others opinions. Because negative thinking spurs negative emotions, negative habitual ways and perspectives persist with this type of cognitive distortion.
You procrastinate or never take action. Fear of total failure can paralyze those who think in black and white terms. You talk about doing many things, but there is little action taken to go after a goal because you believe you will fail no matter what. Making significant changes usually is perceived outside of the realm of possibility
You ignore the good stuff. People who think in all or nothing terms disregard the good things in their life. They only see the negativity. Attempts to show gratitude to others can also be seen as shallow.
How does black and white thinking show up in life?
Thinking in absolute terms shows up across all areas of life. Relationships and health are two of the most common.
Relationships. Relating to self and others is usually where extremist thinking manifests most frequently. It increases the chances that you will assume things about others that are inaccurate or wrong. To demonstrate, if you think the person is always right and you are always wrong because of low self esteem, then you are under valuing yourself and giving up your agency in a relationship. This puts a lot of responsibility on the other party of the relationship because anything that goes wrong is typically assumed to be their fault.
Health. Bad eating and exercise habits can result from all or nothing thinking as well. For example, if you decide to only eat 1,200 calories a day and say “no” to chocolate, even though you know you love something sweet after dinner, When you then decide to eat a piece, all or nothing thinking will show up with a desire to eat all of the chocolate you have access to. In this situation, black and white thinking forces you to perceive that since your rule is broken, you have failed. You might as well as eat all of it.
How to stop all or nothing thinking
Thinking in extremes is a problem for many, but it is particularly challenging for those who naturally absorb other people’s energy and suffer from low self esteem. No matter whether you automatically attune to others emotions or not, here are ways to correct all or nothing thinking.
- Understand how your thoughts influence your emotions. Thoughts are neutral, but when you apply positive and negative labels to it, emotions are involved. If you are prone to interpret your world as negative as an all-or-nothing thinker, then, a negative emotion will trigger a negative response . Becoming awareness of this connection increases the consciousness of this thought pattern, and eventually, you have the ability to determine a more productive response. As a result, you develop the ability to ask the right questions to alter interpretations of situations in extreme terms.
- Do mindfulness exercises. Practicing mindfulness is a good way to increase conscious awareness of your negative thoughts and to identify patterns. Short meditations and journaling are excellent ways to learn to observe your thoughts, thus increasing your ability to identity emotions that trigger unproductive reactions. Check out Well and Wealthy’s journaling tips here.
- Ask yourself, “Is is true?” Once you become aware of how a thought applied with a negative label triggers a negative interpretation of yourself or situation, ask yourself, “Is it true?” To demonstrate, during a break-up of a romantic relationship, you might judge yourself by thinking, “I will never be lovable.” By asking yourself, “is it true?,” you quickly realize that it is not true because your parents love you, your family members love you and your friends love you.
- Be aware of absolutist words in your self-talk. When your thoughts include “always” and “never,” you are engaging in all-or-nothing thinking. During moments where you recognize this is occurring, replace the words with “sometimes” or “maybe” to stop thinking in extremes.
- Seek cognitive behavior therapy. One of the best ways to improve emotional health is by seeing a mental health professional. Experts in cognitive behavior therapy specialize in helping to overcome unproductive thought habits by helping you to increase awareness of negative thought patterns and help you to find ways to lessen their impact. It can also teach you how to increase adaptability in your mindset and widen your toolkit for navigating difficult situations.
All or nothing thinking is generally unproductive. It can worsen conditions of anxiety and depression because of the tendency to spiral downward already negative thoughts into a tailspin. Increasing emotional awareness and your self talk through mindfulness or journaling will help you to develop a new way to overcome black and white thinking, learn how to stop overthinking, and/or mitigate other physical symptoms of anxiety. By reducing unhelpful thought patterns, you can pursue the beautiful grey space in your life journey experiencing all of its ups and downs.