Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

All or Nothing Thinking

By  | 

All or nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion that usually leads to dysfunction. This type of person sees himself and the world in extremes that leave little room for middle ground. He thinks in black and white and has a difficult time accepting the gray areas of life. Words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘failure’, ‘winner’, or ‘every’ are great examples of all or nothing thinking.

This sort of thinking is probably adopted on an unconscious level to increase feelings of comfort. At first it can lower painful anxiety by helping a person make sense of the world and his or her place in it. By definitively deciding how things work, uncertainty and doubt are replaced with a sense of direction. You could say that all or nothing thinking provides you with a symbolic compass to guide your actions, your understanding of yourself, and your understanding of others.

It ends up backfiring because you are left with less options and less ability to be spontaneous and free. A strategy to create greater certainty and efficacy ends up leaving you feeling powerless. The world is a complex place, and learning to live with paradox and uncertainty is essential for mental health.

Our Western culture does not help at all because we are accustomed to thinking in black and white. Day and night, good and bad, up and down, moral and evil, dark and light, beautiful and ugly. These are all examples of dialectics, and you can easily make a huge list of your own in no time at all.

Most of the Eastern traditions, unlike our Western philosophies, embrace paradox and teach students to see the world in gradation where dialectics are extremes of the same scale rather than two entirely different entities. In the case of day and night, for example, you will recognize that dawn, morning, high noon, evening, and dusk are also integral factors of the twenty-four hour cycle where day and night are just the most recognizable extremes. The path to enlightenment in Eastern cultures usually means the calm mind that has found moderation between extremes.

All or nothing thinking does not do justice to the complexity of the world or human experience. When you can back off from some of your extremes and move towards the center, you will start to feel that you have more freedom of movement and thought. You will appreciate the richness of life and your possibilities for various behaviors, interactions, and ways of being.