All-or-Nothing Thinking is a type of Cognitive Distortion.
Cognitive Distortions are inaccurate ways that we perceive the events that happen in our lives. They are negative and often irrational thinking patterns that can really affect our mental health. However, they are also a common issue that everyone experiences at some point in their lives, so you are not alone. I experience cognitive distortions too!
All-or-Nothing Thinking is when our views become extreme or absolute. This is a problem because absolutes, where we use words like ‘never’, ‘always’, and ‘impossible’, are actually not common in our daily lives. It is an inaccurate way of thinking that demonstrates an inability to consider alternatives, or what I like to call ‘maybe’ thoughts.
Signs of All-or-Nothing Thinking
- Frequently use words like, “never”, “always”, “everyone”, “impossible”.
- Tendency to think in that manner negatively.
- Have trouble seeing other alternatives
I will never be good at sports because I am not sporty.
When someone asks if you would consider taking part in a sport, but you decline not because of a lack of interest or any physical conditions, and instead because you don’t see yourself ever being good at it – so why even bother trying?
I always end up making a mistake and create extra work for someone.
When you feel that you don’t have confidence and because you’ve made some mistakes in the past, so now you have this belief that you will always make mistakes and be a burden.
Everyone will betray you eventually.
When someone in the past betrayed you or you’ve read about someone else’s experience, so now you have pre-judged the rest of the world even though they have not done anything to betray your trust.
It’s impossible for me to ever pass my Mother Tongue exam, so why even bother trying?
When you rule out any other possibilities because you have already deemed a task impossible – even though there are plenty of rational explanations why it is in fact possible.
Coping With All-or-Nothing Thinking
First, I need you to understand something really important.
Everyone experiences negative thoughts and it is normal to have them.
Cognitive Distortion is when your negative thoughts evolve into a negative pattern of thinking that starts messing up with your ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis.
That is why I am using the word ‘coping’ instead of ‘treating’ or ‘curing’. I don’t want you to have the expectations that your negative thoughts are going to go away forever. What you can expect is that you will reach a level where you can cope with your negative thoughts and keep them from spiralling out of control.
So here are some specific coping strategies to help you with All-or-Nothing Thinking.
Awareness of All-or-Nothing Thinking
Now that you know what All-or-Nothing Thinking looks like, start keeping an eye out for it. Pay attention to when you are having a negative thought, and point it out when you realise that it is a All-or-Nothing thought.
You’ll be surprised but simply being aware that you are experiencing a cognitive distortion can be enough to for you to snap out of it.
It’s like watching a magic trick. The first time you watch, it looks like magic because you can’t figure it out. But once someone explains to you how the trick is done, it loses its illusion because you can see how it works.
So start by practicing having the awareness that you are experiencing All-or-Nothing Thinking
Challenge Your Thoughts
Once you have the awareness that you are experiencing All-or-Nothing Thinking, it is then time to apply a more active strategy to deal with it.
Challenging your thoughts is what I like to describe as the process of turning an Absolute Thought into a Maybe Thought.
Absolute Thought -> Maybe Thought
We do this by asking questions like we’re trying to poke holes in our absolute thoughts, as if we’re skeptical and don’t quite believe that it is true.
Absolute Thought: I always end up making a mistake and create extra work for someone.
Poking Holes: Do you really ALWAYS make mistake? Do you really ALWAYS end up creating extra work for someone? Are you 100% sure that in your entire life you have NEVER done a single thing without making a mistake or creating extra work for someone else before?
Maybe Thought: Maybe I don’t always make mistakes and create extra work, but I still do it quite often.
Notice how the Maybe Thought is still negative, but it is actually a lot less negative than the Absolute Thought? That’s because we are not trying to lie to ourselves. If the fact is that we do make mistakes often, and we do create extra work for others often, then we are not trying to lie and change that fact.
But by saying that we ALWAYS do it, that is just being unfair to ourselves.
Our goal is to be rational and fair.
Also, the key difference between an Absolute Thought and a Maybe Thought is hope. Absolute Thoughts will leave you without any hope, whereas a Maybe Thought leaves enough room for you to be hopeful that maybe the situation can be change.
Let me demonstrate.
Maybe I don’t always make mistakes and create extra work, but I still do it quite often.
So it means that I am capable of not making mistakes. I am capable of doing things right and not create extra work for others. Sometimes I am a burden, but there are also times when I am not a burden. Sometimes I am helpful.
Okay, so how do I increase the times when I am helpful?
From there, you can start to take action to improve. That begins with a Maybe Thought. Whereas if you were stuck with the Absolute Thought, then you wouldn’t have the hope or motivation to try and change for the better.
As long as you have hope, you will be able to take action and make a change for the better.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
If your attempts to help yourself isn’t working out, then it would be a good idea to speak with a counsellor.
The therapy I use with my students is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It is an evidence-based therapy, meaning lots of very smart scientists have done studies and research and they have found that it really works.
The reason why I like CBT, aside from it being evidence-based, is that it is really structured and methodical. It goes through a process of first identifying your negative thinking patterns (cognitive distortions), learning how to interrupt it so that you don’t sink into a negative spiral, and then how you can change it such that you have healthy and positive thinking patterns instead.
If you’re a student or a youth in Singapore then most counsellors, including school counsellors, will be trained in CBT. Have a chat with them and give counselling it a try. Chances are they will be able to help you.
You can get better.
I have worked with hundreds of students over the years and not a single one of them is an absolute failure or an absolute burden. Yes, they have failed before and they have been burdensome at times, but one event does not define them as individuals for the rest of their lives.
You can improve and get better.
Try the coping strategies that I’ve shared here. If it doesn’t work, go and see a counsellor. All-or-Nothing Thinking is a common issue that many people experienced and have successfully overcome. You are capable of overcoming it as well.