Understanding All Or Nothing Thinking – To Achieve Your Best Self

What is a Cognitive Distortion?

Cognitive distortions are irrational and extreme ways of thinking about the world, yourself, and situations. People with all or nothing thinking develop a negative thinking pattern, and the moment anything goes wrong, in their minds, everything goes wrong.

There are many different terms for all or nothing thinking. You may have heard of some of them. The following are terms that all describe the common cognitive distortion:

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Black and White Thinking Examples

Below are some examples of black and white thinking:

  • Sharon is used to her husband bringing her a coffee before work each morning. However, today he is running late and does not have time to get her a coffee before he leaves for work. Sharon has always felt loved by her husband but because he was unable to get her a coffee today she interprets that as her husband not really caring about her or not being thoughtful enough. She immediately jumps to a negative scenario and is unable to find the middle ground.

  • John loves to study and generally does well in school. However, with his latest project he misinterpreted what he was meant to do and therefore scores less than what he usually would. Rather than seeing this as a mistake, John sees this as a complete failure and he now despises this class.

  • Cherry has taken her drivers test and just passed. She is usually a very attentive and skilled driver. However, because she was nervous before the test she made a couple of mistakes. She received her drivers license but now perceives herself as a bad driver because she just passed.

What Causes All or Nothing Thinking?

The short answer to this question is: no one is sure.

Aaron Beck was working with people dealing with depression in the 1960s, and he noticed that many of them not only suffered the mental health issue of depression and low self-esteem, but they also tended to think in all or nothing terms.

Positive moments were often blown way out of proportion and exaggerated, while negative moments were devastating and gave patients significant increases in anxiety.

Beck coined the term “cognitive distortions” and began to work towards behavioral therapy methods to study and treat it.

It has been theorized that people who engage in all or nothing thinking are victims of some past trauma that they have never been able to overcome. They often have low self-esteem and dwell on the negative aspects of their lives. They often suffer from depression and anxiety.

All or nothing thinking is becoming more common today, as divisions worldwide are being focused on. People often disagree, and rather than finding a middle ground, they engage in an all or nothing thinking pattern that polarizes them on one side of an issue.

This is partly due to the reliance we have on the internet, social media, and loads of information at our fingertips at any given time. We can connect with anyone at any time, which can make us elitists who often hide behind a keyboard to hammer our points home, often full of extremes that are black or white with no gray area.

Thinking in Absolute Terms

People who engage in all or nothing thinking think in absolute terms, which means that everything is extreme in one direction or the other. There is no such thing as moderation. People who think like this frequently display extremist behavior as well.

The following are a few examples of how it looks when people only think in two extremes.


Henry has a job interview coming up. He is told before the interview that he needs to bring in a letter of reference from a past employer or client. Henry cannot get ahold of the manager he wants to get a letter from, so he decides that there’s no point in even going to the job interview. If he can’t get his way, he’s not interested in continuing with the endeavor. He tells himself, “What’s the point in showing up to the interview? It’s going to be terrible because I’m a total failure.”

Henry feels this way because he engages in all or nothing thinking. He is either a total success or an absolute failure. He can’t just be “okay” at anything. If he can’t get that letter from the manager he wants, then he’s done with all of it, and he gives up. He can only focus on a perfect case scenario, and he can’t identify with positive people and can roll with the punches or live with their mistakes.

All or nothing thinking


Lilly is the primary income earner, and her husband Thomas is a stay-at-home dad; they have two small children. Lilly comes home to her family after work and is disgusted by her husband, Thomas. She notices that the dishes from the lunch Thomas made are still in the sink. There are a few toys on the living room floor. “What have you done all day? This house is filthy!” she exclaims at Thomas.

While Thomas knows that the dishes need to be done, he doesn’t understand why Lilly can’t see the effort he has put into other aspects of the day, like making lunch, feeding and caring for his kids, and playing with them. His feelings are immediately hurt by Lilly’s negativity and the fact that all she sees are her perceived failures. “Do you have no motivation to live in a clean house? Do you not care about your family enough to make sure the kids play in a nice home? How stupid are you?!”

Lilly will never have a happy and successful marriage this way, and the future of her marriage is bleak. If she can’t overcome her automatic negative assumptions that her husband is slacking during the day, and learn to see the positives. Her marriage is most likely destined for failure.

Lilly can’t help but notice the things that are wrong because that’s all or nothing thinking. Her treatment of her husband is awful, and she may even know it, but when she’s in a negative mindset, she can’t speak nicely to Thomas.

She decides that he’s not trying. He’s stupid. He doesn’t notice that the house is in chaos (it’s not, it’s just more extremist thinking), he has no sense of pride in their home, and his emotions and feelings are overly sensitive. He needs to get over it and do good things rather than lazy or sloppy things. Then maybe her treatment of Thomas would be better.

These beliefs are not rational, but Lilly can’t get past it. Not on her own.

All or Nothing Quotes

Below are some quotes that exhibit an all or nothing mentality:

“Tired, tired with nothing, tired with everything, tired with the world’s weight he had never chosen to bear.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

“From the moment we are born, we begin to die.”

― Janne Teller, Nothing

“What have I become?
My sweetest friend;
everyone I know goes away in the end.
And you could have it all:
my empire of dirt.
I will let you down.
I will make you hurt.”

― Nine Inch Nails

“If truth is what you seek, then the examined life will only take you on a long ride to the limits of solitude and leave you by the side of the road with your truth and nothing else.”

― Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

“My peak? Would I even have one? I hardly had anything you could call a life. A few ripples. Some rises and falls. But that’s it. Almost nothing. Nothing born of nothing. I’d loved and been loved, but I had nothing to show. It was a singularly plain, featureless landscape. I felt like I was in a video game. A surrogate Pacman, crunching blindly through a labyrinth of dotted lines. The only certainty was my death.”

― Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

Behavioral Therapy and Psychology Today

Understanding in psychology has grown in leaps and bounds since Aaron Beck first sat down with depressed patients and tried to figure out why they engage in all or nothing thinking and how to deal with it. Distortions such as these are now widely accepted in psychology today, and cognitive behavioral therapy has emerged to help deal with it.

Behavioral therapy exists to pinpoint the behaviors that amp up your anxiety and help recognize when you are acting or thinking irrationally.

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Success After All or Nothing Thinking

If you have realized in reading this article that you may be an all or nothing thinker, or if you read the examples provided and think you may be the spouse of someone who leads this sort of life or the friend of someone who fits the bill, then rest assured that there is hope.

Life doesn’t have to be negative, and those who see their mistakes as automatic failures and focus only on the bad and can’t see the positive aspects to anything don’t have to live that life indefinitely.

One session with a counselor or therapist may lead you to seek more help to conquer your anxiety, which fuels all or nothing thinking.

You can learn to recognize that your words impact the feelings and emotions of other people. Every mistake you make doesn’t make you a terrible or worthless person, and possibilities exist for you to get better.

Be the Person that You Want to Be

If you can be dedicated to getting past the all or nothing thinking you’ve been stuck in, and you want to be able to think straight instead of irrationally, you can. You can be whoever you want to be. Just because you have moments of irrationality or engage in all or nothing thinking doesn’t mean you are beyond hope. You are still worthy of love, success, and respect.

It may require seeking the help of a licensed professional if you think that it’s not something you can tackle on your own. A family therapist can show you ways to deal with your irrational thinking, and you can get away from the lifestyle and thought process of an absolutist. Your family and friends love you and will most likely support you in your journey. You simply need to believe in yourself.

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