Four Ways to Overcome All-or-Nothing Thinking

4 min read

In the years that I treated anxiety and depression, I witnessed a common cognitive distortion. Most of my clients came in viewing their world from an all-or-nothing lens. Also known as black-and-white thinking, it is the belief that there are only two categories, good and bad, winners and losers. Left unaddressed, research shows this limited perspective-taking can lead to burnout, depression, and overeating.

Stephanie was one such client of mine. She was a devoted high school sprinter with impressive times, but she’d have a bad start in a race and want to throw in the towel because she was “not cut out for this.” She had convinced herself that she was a terrible swimmer. Of course, it wasn’t true but, in the moment, it felt real. This would trigger other negative thoughts, leaving her overwhelmed and not wanting to get out of bed for morning practice.

Stephanie, like many of my clients, had no idea that they were falling prey to a cognitive distortion. It just felt normal to them. One way to know if you or someone you care about is prone to all-or-nothing thinking is to notice the response when faced with a negative setback. A typical response: “I am a disaster.” “I am a failure.” This shows the issue is deeper than the circumstance. This type of distorted response may also be hurled at someone else: “You always let me down.” “You never support me.”

Depressogenic schematic processing
This type of binary thinking is linked to depression (Teasdale and colleagues, 2001). Furthermore, there’s a correlation between binary thinking and eating disorders (Fairburn, Cooper, and Shafran, 2003). What makes it even more challenging is that our culture reinforces all-or-nothing thinking with slogans: “Never coast.” “All in.” and “No pain, no gain.” This only leads to more harsh thinking.

Gaining weight can often trigger such thinking, which can then lead to radical diets or exercise measures. Extreme diets and boot camp approaches tend to reinforce the problem. The temporary results they produce do not resolve the underlying problem and the unsustainable routines can make matters worse.

Thankfully, there are new, science-based tools to help and plenty of reasons to make the time to utilize them. Here are four tools to overcome all-or-nothing thinking:

  1. Slow down. Start by slowing down your breathing. The breath can speed thoughts up and slow them down. When stressed, our breathing accelerates. This intensifies our reactivity. When you slow your breath down to four or five breaths per minute, you can see more clearly and react less harshly. Try it now, breathe in for four counts, hold for one, and breathe out for four. In through the nose and out through the mouth. Feel the rise and fall of your belly. Repeat four or five times.
  2. Awareness. Once you become aware of your breathing, notice your negative thoughts without judgment. Simply create a space for awareness. You might gently say, “Oh, I am doing that all-or-nothing thing again.” This takes practice. You will gravitate to judging but imagine you are fly fishing. If you judge, reel in the line, and cast again.
  3. Disengage autopilot. When triggered, our immediate thoughts are what are known as automatic thoughts. These are likely irrational. All-or-nothing thinking is an example of an automatic thought. You can disengage by substituting rational thoughts. An automatic thought: This is the worst thing ever. A rational thought: This is a moment in time. I have a plan for this kind of setback.
  4. Positive Imagery. Multiple studies highlight the impact of positive mental imagery in treating depression and building resilience (Renner and colleagues, 2019). When the negative self-talk starts, it naturally conjures up negative imagery. The good news is that you can change the channel and elaborate on what you desire. The mind cannot hold two opposing images at once; the one you focus on will prevail.

There’s absolutely no need to continue to suffer from all-or-nothing thinking. When you realize there is another way of being and allow a few seconds to breathe and for rational thoughts and images to override the autopilot, you can avoid despair for yourself and your loved ones. It takes time and patience, but it’s worth it. It is liberating when you realize there are more than two roads ahead.

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