All-or-nothing thinking: 3 ways to stop throwing in the towel

March 9, 2022 - 13 min read

all-or-nothing-thinking-man-looking-out-of-the-window

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What is all-or-nothing thinking?

What is the impact of all-or-nothing thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking vs. zero-sum thinking

Signs of all-or-nothing thinking

3 ways to overcome all-or-nothing thinking

Do you find yourself harping on small mistakes? Do you brush off positive feedback to zone in on one negative comment? If so, you might be guilty of all-or-nothing thinking.

If that’s the case, you’re not alone. The human brain has a negativity bias — that is, we attribute more weight to negative experiences and interactions than to positive ones.

From a survival standpoint, this makes sense — but from an experiential perspective, it’s not terribly accurate or fun. Your all-or-nothing thinking patterns could be making you more stressed, less creative, and closed off to potential solutions.

Learn more about all-or-nothing thinking and how to stop it in its tracks.

What is all-or-nothing thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking is one of the most common cognitive distortions. A cognitive distortion is a faulty thought pattern that makes us more prone to negative thoughts and conclusions. This type of thinking makes us forget to challenge our thought processes and look for evidence to the contrary or alternative solutions.

While there are many types of cognitive distortion, nearly everyone has experienced all-or-nothing thinking.

All-or-nothing thinking is especially common in perfectionists and those with mental health disorders (like anxiety and depression). When you give into this type of thinking, you’re essentially saying that there are only two options: success or failure. In reality, most of us spend our time somewhere in the middle (and probably closer to success than we realize).

Let’s look at some examples of how all-or-nothing thinking impacts your well-being:

Examples of all-or-nothing thinking

Example 1:

Performance reviews are coming up, and Desi is worried. They know that their performance has mostly been pretty good, but there was a major project that they dropped the ball on. Unfortunately, as Desi gets closer to review time, it’s all they can think about. 

They say to themselves, “If I couldn’t get that right, then I can’t be trusted with bigger projects. There’s no way I can ask for a raise now. They’re probably just keeping me around until they can hire someone else.”

Example 2:

John grew up in a strict household, and his parents kept everything running like clockwork. But now that he has kids of his own, he feels like he’s always dropping the ball. John is used to being on time, but he’s now often running late, which is a constant source of stress. The kids rarely make it to the school bus on time

He thinks to himself, “I’m not cut out for this parenting thing. If I can’t even get my kids to school on time, what kind of dad am I?”

Example 3:

Becca has anxiety and depression, and she sees a therapist. Even though she feels good most of the time, there are times when she starts to feel down or exhausted. When this happens, it can be difficult to handle daily tasks, like cooking, laundry, or washing dishes. It’s all she can do to go to work and get back in her bed.

When things start to slide, Becca stares at the laundry and dirty dishes in dismay. “Who lets themselves live like this?” she asks. “After all that money spent on therapy, I can’t even clean up after myself.”

In each of these examples, there’s a trigger — whether it’s dirty dishes, a past mistake, or a missed bus. And in each case, the person made the situation mean something about their self-worth or value as a person. That escalates things from a challenging situation to a personal crisis.

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What is the impact of all-or-nothing thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking is a subtle voice in the brain. Its messages can often feel like reality. We’re inclined to believe the negative thoughts because we have proof. The evidence is right there — if we were better, we would have avoided the situation we find ourselves in. This kind of mental filtering can ruin our confidence, self-efficacy, and problem-solving ability.

Here are some ways all-or-nothing thinking affects us:


All-or-nothing thinking vs. zero-sum thinking

Zero-sum thinking and all-or-nothing thinking are often used interchangeably, but the terms are a bit different. Both of them are thought patterns that deal in extremes. However, with zero-sum thinking, the fallacy is that in order for someone to get what they want, someone else has to miss out. 

People who think this way have difficulty coming to a compromise. Instead of everything being good or bad, everything is win or lose. This can lead to feeling like everyone is out to get you or has an ulterior motive.

all-or-nothing-thinking-two-people-playing-chess

Signs of all-or-nothing thinking

In order to overcome all-or-nothing patterns, you have to learn to recognize them. Here are some indicators that you could spend a little more time in the gray area: 

  • You often use words like “always,” “never,” “should,” and “shouldn’t”
  • You have a hard time seeing the positives in a situation
  • You often look at the downsides, even with potential opportunities
  • You won’t try something unless you’re confident you can do it perfectly
  • You have a hard time receiving feedback, positive or constructive
  • Small mistakes can make you feel like a total failure

If you feel like you recognize these tendencies, it’s worth learning how to shift the way you think about situations in your life. Overcoming all-or-nothing thinking can help boost your self-esteem and cognitive flexibility.

3 ways to overcome all-or-nothing thinking

The first and most important step to curb negative thought patterns is to learn to recognize them. This can be challenging since our thoughts run unconsciously and consistently — and many of them aren’t so positive. All-or-nothing thinking is a habit, and like any other habit, you need to notice it to break it.

1. Try re-labeling your thoughts

When you notice that you’ve assigned meaning to a situation, call yourself out on it. You may not use the terms “good” and “bad,” but chances are you have another default term. Everyone has a favorite way to beat themselves up (mine are “responsible” and “irresponsible.”

Once you’ve pinpointed the pattern, label it. Black-and-white thinkers tend to label their behavior or circumstances. In this case, you’ll just label the whole thought process as “all-or-nothing.” Labeling the thought process pulls you out of the automatic thought loop and into the reasoning part of your brain.

Once again, just label the entire process — don’t use it as an excuse to beat yourself up. This is a game of noticing, and if you do it even once you’re doing great.

all-or-nothing-thinking-person-staring-off-thinking

2. Get some perspective 

You’ve identified that you’re thinking about something in an unhelpful way. Now take it to trial. You can even write it down. What happened? What does it mean about you? Where’s your proof?

If you need to, run it by a friend, family member, or coach who can help you come up with other ways to look at the situation. For example, you may feel bad that you forgot a friend’s birthday. That doesn’t make you a terrible friend. It means you forgot. And even more importantly, it tells you something about your values. You might actually be a pretty good friend, or it wouldn’t matter so much to you.

Brainstorm all possible solutions, reasons, and explanations — from the reasonable to the ridiculous. You might find that the gray area is much bigger and more plausible than you think.

3. Reframe the thought

Once you have a wider range of thoughts to choose from (read: not two), rephrase your original thought. Remind yourself of all possible explanations that exist between absolute failure and absolute success.

For example, you go on a job interview. You think it went well, but when you tell your friend about it later, they don’t agree with you. “I just wouldn’t have answered that question like that,” they say. 

You feel like it went fine, but now you can’t stop thinking about what your friend said. You start searching interview questions and prep material (you know, for informational purposes). You think about sending the interviewer a follow-up response on LinkedIn, just to make sure they understood what you meant.

Before you spiral any further (or hit send) stop and ask yourself: What are five other ways to look at this? Maybe your answer was perfect. Maybe it wasn’t, but the hiring manager appreciated your candor. Maybe your friend is jealous of your new opportunity.

The truth is likely somewhere in between — that you’re being evaluated on a variety of factors. One comment, even if it wasn’t “perfect,” won’t outweigh your entire interview process. You’re an excellent candidate, or you wouldn’t be interviewing. And if you don’t get this job, there will be others.

The fact is, most of what we tell ourselves is a story — and some stories have more truth to them than others. Pick the one that empowers you (and maybe even lets you off the hook just a little). If you don’t get to be the hero of your own story, then when do you?

Learning to reframe distorted thoughts is a key skill taught in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It helps you pinpoint self-criticism and evaluate the accuracy of those thoughts. And like any skill, it’s something that you can continue to get better at.

Progress, not perfection

When we get trapped in all-or-nothing thinking, we’re essentially saying to ourselves that perfection is the only good outcome.

And that’s just not true. If we only accept perfection, we’re doomed to failure. We’ll have a negative self-perception because no matter how well things turn out, we’ll never measure up.

The trick to dismantling all-or-nothing thinking is to reward ourselves for progress, not perfection. We don’t have to get it all right all the time — we just have to continue to grow.

When we reframe our expectations and take a close look at ourselves, we might find things are going better than we imagined.

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Published March 9, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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