All-Or-Nothing Thinking: What It Is and What It Looks Like

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Last Updated on March 2, 2023 by the thought method co.

All-or-nothing thinking is a thought distortion, meaning it is skewed thinking that gives you a false perception. This skewed thinking spreads outward. So if you’re thinking in all-or-nothing terms it is likely negatively impacting your mental health and every area of your life. And it’s likely a habit.

Fortunately, simply knowing what all-or-nothing thinking is can lessen its power.


All-Or-Nothing Thinking Defined

All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion. Which means it’s an unhelpful thinking habit that distorts our perceptions. Think of “cognitive” as a fancy way of saying thinking, so “thinking distortion.”

As the name suggests, all -or-nothing thinking is when you see things in all-or-nothing terms. Meaning you ignore the complexities of life and dumb them down to either-or considering nothing in between.

This could be ignoring past successes and hyper-focusing on a current failure. Or seeing a person or food, or even yourself as either bad or good and ignoring that people are complex and food has different nutritional value levels.

All-or-nothing thinking is also known as:

  • black-and-white thinking
  • polarized thinking
  • dichotomous thinking
  • extreme thinking

What All-or-Nothing Thinking Looks Like

All-of-nothing thinking isn’t too tricky to spot. Look out for words like “never” or “always.” And look out for instances where you feel like things are either-or.

Of course, there are some situations when you have to choose between two things. But that’s not always the case. Mostly life is much more complex.

Common words associated with all-or-nothing thinking are:

  • Always
  • Never
  • Everything
  • Nothing
  • Everyone
  • No one
  • Anymore
  • Can’t
  • Either/or

All-Or-Nothing Thinking Effects

Like all cognitive (thinking) distortions, all-or-nothing thinking leans towards the negative. Thinking in all-or-nothing terms will lead you to a negative space. You’ll focus on the negative aspects of life. The good things are minimized while the negative things are magnified.

All-or-nothing thinking is looking at life through the lens of “either this or that” with nothing in between. So either someone is a complete success or a total failure. Things are perfect or horrible. Happy or Sad. Rich or poor. Fit or fat.

Thinking in all-or-nothing terms makes life rigid. It wreaks havoc on mental and emotional well-being. You may think things will “never” get better. Things feel heavy.

You’ll then unknowingly look for negative things to confirm your thoughts. And the next thing you know, you’re stuck. You feel hopeless and depressed. No only life, you feel rigid too.

It will be hard to achieve success if we give up at any sign of failure. So if we try to open a business or start a new hobby and our efforts don’t work out as planned we should consider it all part of the learning process.

With all-or-nothing thinking we may think that life needs to work out or it won’t work out at all. So if there a bump in the road we may stop and give up. But it’s at THAT pivotal point where we decide if we succeed or fail (keep going or stop feeling defeated).

All-Or-Nothing Thinking and Self

When it comes to how you view yourself, all-or-nothing thinking is closely associated with perfectionism. So if you think that something needs to be prefect (including yourself) then you’re likely thinking in all-or-nothing terms.

This can manifest as procrastination. Wanting everything to be perfect is a losing battle. It’s exhausting. So you may procrastinate in order to avoid the negative feelings of trying to be perfect. Or it may look like you thinking you “can’t” do something. It’s not that you “can’t” do the thing. It’s that it’s impossible to do the thing perfectly.

It can also look like feeling completely defeated after a set back. Someone who doesn’t think in all-or-nothing terms will likely be upset and eventually bounce back. Someone who thinks in all-or-nothing terms will think one setback determines the overall score, even if they’ve succeeded many times before.

All-or-Nothing Thinking and Others

All-or-nothing thinking reduces. So if we see other people in all-or-nothing terms we reduce them. This looks like judging them by one action or one belief instead of seeing them as a unique and complex individual.

While there are extremists, not everyone has extreme views. With all-or-nothing we think in extremes. So we assume anyone with an opinion holds it to an extreme. If that opinion is different than our own the all-or-nothing thinking manifests in the “me” vs “them” mentality.

Some Visualization

All-or-nothing thinking would be like eating a sandwich with just the sliced bread and no filling or spread. Since all-or-nothing thinking is rigid and depressing imagine stale bread.

Or imagine all-or-nothing thinking is like eating just the Oreo wafer with no sweet crème filling. You also have no milk and no water or any liquid to wash the black Oreo bits off your teeth—it’s now a paste on your gums.

Or imagine you have a fresh pack of Oreos or sandwich in the fridge you’re really looking forward to. And when the time comes you opened the Oreo pack or the fridge and there was nothing inside.

That’s how bad all-or-nothing thinking can be. But it won’t stop there. Imagine it happening on a continual loop for the rest of your life. Because with all-or-nothing thinking, you think one instance is always going to happen or that you’ll never get your Oreos.

Example of All-or-Nothing Thinking on TV

I’m watching Teem Mom 2 (no judgement lol). And during an episode, a mom says she’s miserable and everyone else is happy. She thinks she’ll never be happy.

She just broke up with her boyfriend and is equating happiness to being in a relationship. She’s hyperfocused on her friends who are in relationships and thinks everyone else is happy.

But if she looks closely, she will see that not all of her friends are dating, and not all of them are happy. She’d realize she’ll be in a relationship again, and that things won’t always be this way.

I looked it up. She’s married now.

Related article: 33+ Examples of All-or-Nothing Thinking

Photo by Etienne Girardet

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