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all or nothing thinking

Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find?”― Ridley Scott

All or nothing thinking leads to extreme thinking patterns with no gray area. It is either good or bad, success or failure, and nothing in between, which is why it is called “Black and White Thinking”. Individuals that think this way tend to be perfectionists. “If I am not perfect then I am a failure” because there is no other possibility. All or nothing thinking causes one to view or evaluate self and others in negative ways. This kind of thinking is a result of cognitive distortion (Kelly, 2015).

Cognitive distortion can be described as a default or an automatic way to interpret a situation or circumstance without the ability to give room for other possible thinking. Depending on cognitive distortion causes emotional dysfunction such as anxiety, depression, and anger because of how events in life are interpreted. It is important to expand “All or nothing thinking” especially if you are like me.

I often suffer from this type of thinking especially in school and work. I gave an example of a recent situation here. When it comes to school only 100% is good enough. When I got 98% I thought “I am not enough” otherwise I would have gotten 100%. That is why I prefer letter grades only, but in life, you do not always get what you want. Learning to expand my thinking helped me deal with perfectionism, especially in my school performance. Below are some ways of expanding all or nothing thinking.

Ways of Expanding “All or Nothing Thinking” (Tartakovsky & read, 2015)

1. Separate self-worth from performance(s).
“The problem with basing how you feel about yourself on your performance is that your opinion of yourself is in constant flux, and is rarely positive” – Ashley Thorn.

2. “And” instead of “Or”
Instead of focusing in on “great viewership this week” or “this week I had a terrible record,” consider the whole picture. “I had some wonderful ratings this week, and some posts that did not do well this week.”

3. Focus on positive qualities more often (While working on expanding).
Every night, write down one to three things you did that day, then write the positive qualities those actions reveal. Thomas S. Greenspon PhD recommends “Building an environment of acceptance” through empathy, encouragement, self-reflection, and dialogue” (Kelly, 2015)

4. Consider all possible options.
When using all-or-nothing thinking, you might make decisions without all the information. It is advisable to explore other options without letting your decision be clouded by the anxiety that accompanies cognitive distortion.

5. Explore these questions.
What are my values? How do these fit into my thoughts, questions, and decisions?

What are the pros and cons to both sides of the argument?

What are the facts, and what are my assumptions? Ashley Thorn.

All or nothing thinking can be expanded, allowing us to break free from perfectionism and find the grace to exercise self-compassion. It is a process and not a quick fix. The bottom line is to focus on the process you are making rather the result or the outcome. Acceptance and self-compassion are the keywords while expanding your “All or nothing thinking”.

Thank you for reading and stay blessed always.



Kelly, J. D. (2015). Your Best Life: Perfectionism—The Bane of Happiness. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research®473(10), 3108–3111. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11999-015-4279-9

LONDON, R. T. (2011). ‘All-or-Nothing’ Thinking and Psychiatry. Clinical Psychiatry News39(10), 34–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0270-6644(11)70393-9

Tartakovsky, M., & read, M. S. A. E. L. updated: 8 J. 2018 ~ 3 min. (2015, August 12). 5 Ways to Expand All-or-Nothing Thinking. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from psychcentral.com website: https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-ways-to-expand-all-or-nothing-thinking/

4 thoughts on “Ways of Expanding “All or Nothing Thinking”

  1. Wm. Allen – Royal Oak, MI – I’m just an ordinary guy, who grew tried of being ordinary and thought I could change, as well as help other people who felt like I do to also change
    Wm. Allen says:

    Nice post

    1. Marie Cook
      Marie Jeanderine Cook says:

      Thank you for your kind comment.

  2. Lashaan Balasingam @ Roars and Echoes – Reader. Reviewer. Researcher. Criminology Ph.D. Candidate. Montreal, Quebec (Canada). Want to know more? Connect with him!
    Lashaan Balasingam @ Bookidote says:

    Fantastic piece. I know a couple of people who could benefit from being reminded of this. The whole all or nothing mentality can be killer and people need to stop it! Thanks for sharing, Marie!

    1. Marie Cook
      Marie Jeanderine Cook says:

      Thank you for your insightful comments. Yeah, it is a great reminder indeed. It is a killer of progress and joy and has the potential of shutting down our mental health if we are not careful. I remember my dreadful experiences. I am still working through it, but definitely not where I used to be.

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