All or Nothing

The Impact of All-Or-Nothing Thinking

“I didn’t get an A on my test, I’m a failure.”

“My body doesn’t look like hers. I hate my body.”

“If I can’t finish everything today, I won’t even start.”

If these statements sound familiar, you may be prone to all-or-nothing thinking, a very common cognitive distortion. All-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in extremes. You’re either a success or a failure, smart or dumb, attractive or ugly. This is an oversimplified way of viewing the world and is often inappropriate to the situation or self-defeating. To develop a more balanced and effective mindset, it is important to recognize all-or-nothing thinking when it pops up.

Examples of All-Or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking can appear in numerous scenarios. The constant characteristic is the idea that anything less than perfect equates to “terrible”. This leads to feelings of disappointment and shame. Negative self-talk is also common when in this mindset and we often beat ourselves up for the small thing that wasn’t perfect instead of recognizing the areas we did well in. Examples of this may be:

– A single mistake ruins a whole project

– Forgetting a birthday means you are a bad friend

– You didn’t like your answer to one interview question, so the whole thing was a waste of time

– One cheat meal means you failed to implement healthy eating habits

All-Or-Nothing Thinking and Perfectionism

All-or-nothing thinking frequently leads to excessive perfectionism. This results in the feeling that any mistake or outcome that falls short of perfection is a complete failure. This is an unrealistic expectation, but often creeps in when we are not aware of all-or-nothing thinking and how it can affect us. These expectations often create additional stress, destroy self-esteem, and limit what we are willing to put out into the world. Perfectionism can affect anyone but is very common in academic environments and workplaces. It also creeps up when performing for others or when examining one’s own physical appearance.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking and Anxiety

This cognitive distortion is also closely linked to anxiety and anxiety disorders. All-or-nothing thinking fosters a constant fear of always falling short, leading to constant underlying feelings of nervousness and apprehension. These feelings can increase a person’s baseline anxiety levels and overtime may result in an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder. By learning to recognize all-or-nothing thinking and challenge perfectionist thoughts, symptoms of anxiety can be relieved, resulting in a more balanced outlook and increased quality of life.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking and Depression

This way of thinking contributes to a harsh view of one’s accomplishments and experiences. Any perceived failing or fault is exaggerated and viewed as a devastating defeat. This can exacerbate symptoms of clinical depression, especially feelings of unworthiness, hopelessness, and inadequacy. Working to find a middle ground and

view ourselves and the world in a more balanced way can help people with depression create a greater sense of self-acceptance and well-being.

Challenging All-Or-Nothing Thinking

Recognizing all-or-nothing thinking is a great first step to challenging and changing it. This may happen in the moment or can be reflected on later. Try to look for an alternative viewpoint that falls into a “gray area” instead of just black-and-white. For example, “I was thrown by that one question, but the rest of my interview was solid.” Or “One lazy day on the couch doesn’t erase the progress I’ve made with my fitness goals”.

Learning to recognize the gray areas and balance out your thinking will have a profound impact on the way you feel about yourself and your experiences in the world. It is often helpful to have a trained professional work alongside you in this. Any of our counsellors would be happy to teach you how to recognize all-or-nothing thinking, use CBT techniques to challenge them, and implement alternative thoughts. Reach out for a 15-minute free consultation with a therapist in Nanaimo or Port Alberni or online.

Written by Cat Zydyk


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles. (2023, October 4). Cognitive Distortions: All-Or-Nothing Thinking.,shades%20of%20gray%20at%20all.

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