The Dangers of All or Nothing Thinking

All or nothing thinking, also known as black and white thinking, is a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that result in feelings such as anxiety or depression.

All or nothing thinking is when we look at things in extremes, see a situation as being either this way or that way, and always or never. The fact of the matter is that very, very rarely are things black and white. Most everything in this world exists within the grey area.

Here is an example of all or nothing thinking:

My husband never shows me affection anymore. He must be having an affair.

What is wrong with this thought? The problem is that it is extreme; it jumps to the worst possible conclusion and allows no room for the MANY other possibilities. Perhaps this person’s husband is struggling with his self-esteem, mental health challenges, or is not feeling connected to his partner.

Let’s try another one.

I studied for hours for this test and only got an 85%. What a complete waste of time.

What is wrong with this thought? It completely discounts the fact that studying for a long time resulted in a reasonable and above average grade. It equates anything less than 100% as 0%. This is an unreasonable rule to apply to yourself and is likely to trigger feelings such as self-doubt and shame. A more effective way to look at this 85% is to recognize that perhaps you did not get all the questions correct, but you did get most of them correct. Check the test to see if you can identify any patterns or themes in your mistakes so you can improve next time.

Everyone engages in cognitive distortions sometimes. It is easy to fall into all or nothing thinking patterns; however, it is important to make a conscious effort to recognize this destructive way of thinking. It is then that we can challenge ourselves to develop more effective viewpoints.

About Shelton Piland: 

Shelton is a Supervisee in Clinical Social Work and provides services at our Fredericksburg location. She graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a B.A. in Sociology. Shelton received her Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University. Throughout her time at VCU she has worked with elementary, middle school, and high school students in the Spotsylvania Public School system. To learn more about Shelton, visit here.

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