All-or-Nothing Thinking


An All-or-Nothing Thinker’s Guide to Measuring Success

Have you ever come in second place in an event and felt like a failure for not taking first?  Have you ever received a C (or an A-) on an exam and felt as though you failed?  Have you walked into your kitchen to rediscover that your sink is still full of dishes and then declared that your home is an utter pigsty?  Or have you had the experience of posting a comment or image on your Facebook account and received fewer likes and comments than you anticipated and then wished that you’d never posted it at all?  If so, then you have probably experienced something called all-or-nothing thinking.  And you’re not alone.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

I want to share with you a little bit about all-or-nothing thinking.  It affects almost everyone from time to time.  And it is often a defining characteristic of perfectionists.  It is also a very common way of thinking among those who struggle with depression or anxiety.  And it can affect to how we evaluate ourselves, our relationships, our performances, and our achievements.

All-or-nothing thinking, also known as black-and-white thinking, is a way of thinking in which we unconsciously limit how we assess success.  Instead of allowing for varying degrees of success, there is only perfection or failure.

All-or-nothing thinking is fairly common.  And in small doses, it isn’t harmful.  But if this characterizes the way you think, it can be like poison to your emotional health.

According to David D. Burns, author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,

[All-or-nothing thinking] refers to your tendency to evaluate your personal qualities in extreme, black-or-white categories…All-or-nothing thinking forms the basis for perfectionism.  It causes you to fear any mistake or imperfection because you will then see yourself as a complete loser, and you will feel inadequate and worthless.

Did you catch the chain reaction of a black-or-white thinker’s bad logic?  And how horrible and wrong that logic is?  In case you missed it, I made a picture.  The X’s indicate that each statement is incorrect:


Every single step of that equation is wrong.  Achieving less than perfection does not make you a failure.  It makes you human.  No one is worthless.  And everyone is good enough.  Black-or-white thinking tries to replace those truths with its lies.  And its messages lead those who accept them to feel depressed, alone, hopeless, and trapped.

Please, believe this message instead: Imperfection is not inadequacy.  Not being flawless does not make you worthless.  You are always good enough.

How to Retrain Your Brain

So, what can someone do if they do often think in black and white?  What if someone is depressed and most of their thoughts follow this bad logic?

In some situations, it may be appropriate to seek professional help.  Sometimes these thought patterns are the cause of depression, and sometimes they are the symptom of it.  Sometimes changing how you think will change how you feel.  But sometimes that alone is not enough.  A professional can help in these situations.  But in some situations, you do have the power to enact change.

For example, there are things that can help you to retrain your brain so that you have more options than just perfection or failure.  There is something in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy known as cognitive restructuring which helps you to change your default ways of thinking.  I will share with you one technique involved in cognitive restructuring known as the triple-column technique.

Triple-Column Technique

You begin by making three columns on a sheet of paper or spreadsheet.  Next, label those columns Automatic Thought, Cognitive Distortion, and Rational Response.  Then follow this pattern when a negative thought enters your mind:

  1. Recognize the thought and write it down under the Automatic Thought column
  2. Acknowledge and identify it as an example of all-or-nothing thinking (there are other cognitive distortions and this column can be used to identify them as well)
  3. Come up with and record a more rational response to replace the original thought

Here are a few examples of what the process looks like:


Eventually, if you keep this kind of log for long enough, you can retrain your brain to automatically auto-correct itself when those negative and distorted thoughts pop in.  It leads to much more positive, realistic and hopeful thinking.

If you do struggle with black-or-white thinking, I encourage you to try this restructuring activity for the next week and see what happens.  You may find that it helps you to be more accepting of your imperfections and more aware of and grateful for your accomplishments.  And if you think that you need professional help, please seek it out.  You’re worth it!

Start Now

bonsaiAn ancient Chinese proverb reads, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.”

There never seems to be a shortage of reasons to put off enacting change:  I’m too busy.  I’m too old to change.  It will take forever and I want results now.

There is a harmful way of thinking that tries to (among other things) convince people that if there is a possibility of not succeeding, or not seeing desired results in a timely fashion, then choosing to do nothing is the better way to go.  In essence, it whispers, “If you can’t have it all and have it now, then you might as well do nothing”.  And that is what most people end up doing: nothing.

But here’s the thing: that thought is trying to rob you of something.  Two significant somethings, in fact.  It tries to rob you of satisfaction and growth in the present and satisfaction and growth in the future.

If you plan a seed today, you will not enjoy the shade of a 20-year-old tree today from it.  But, you will feel satisfaction in knowing that you planted something, that you took part in a creative process, and that you invested in the future.  As you observe a plant sprouting through the soil, you won’t be eating fruit from the tree, but you will notice growth and have greater hope for the future.  Further, in 20 years, not only will you be enjoying fruit and shade, but you will find that you will have beautified a space and created something amazing that has benefited you and others.

The same goes with personal changes.  You won’t see big results immediately, but you will feel satisfaction in knowing that you are growing, and someday those results will benefit you and many others.

There will always be reasons to procrastinate.  But, the best time to start acting is now.  Unless, of course, you have a time machine.

So start doing something now.  You’ll be glad that you did!