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Unhealthy Thinking Patterns: All or Nothing

Success or failure. Empty or full. Meaningful or meaningless. We use words like this all the time to describe ourselves, other people, events, ideas, the world around us, and life in general. But these extremes don’t represent the entire truth. In fact, when you limit yourself to extreme opposites, you’re using an unhealthy thinking pattern: all or nothing thinking.

What all or nothing thinking means

All or nothing thinking is thinking in extremes. It’s seeing the world as black or white, right or wrong, good or bad.

All or nothing presents everything as a false dichotomy: there are only two possible choices, actions, interpretations, etc.

When something is either good or bad, then if it’s not good, it’s bad. There is no room for middle-ground.

There are many reasons why thinking this way can create roadblocks to happiness and other major problems in your life. We’ll get to those in a minute, but first, I want to help you identify your own all or nothing thoughts.

What all or nothing thinking looks like

Most people have heard of all or nothing thinking, but they might not recognize when they start doing it. Like other unhealthy thinking patterns, being able to catch your all or nothing thoughts is the only way to start thinking in healthier, more productive ways.

Like overgeneralization, there are some key words that can clue you in to all or nothing thinking: “all” and “nothing” themselves, obviously, but also “always,” “never,” or any idea taken to the extreme.

If you catch yourself having thoughts like these, you may be struggling with all or nothing thinking:

“I always mess up.”
“Nobody likes me.”
“I’m a failure.”
“My anxiety ruins everything.”
“I will never get what I want.”
“I’m stuck with only bad options.”
“I’m really bad at _________.”

Why it’s a problem

One of the most harmful things about all or nothing thinking is how limiting it is. 

Think of it this way: the human eye can discern millions of unique colors. If you look around you, wherever you are right now, you’ll probably see thousands of varying shades. 

Now, imagine if you were limited to using only the most basic color words—red, orange, yellow, green, and so on—to describe all those colors.

Would that paint an accurate picture of all the colors in the world? No.

The world is full of nuance, variation, and “in-betweens.” Ignoring that is going to limit your view and your understanding of what the world can be.  

Not only that, but all or nothing thinking is simply inaccurate. 

Consider a test you might take for a class. How many grades can you get on that test? Anywhere from 0% to 100%, right?

With all or nothing thinking, however, anything that isn’t 100% would be 0%. Even just one mistake would derail the entire endeavor.

That brings us to the last major problem with all or nothing thinking. Because many of us have a tendency to focus on the negative (it’s called the negativity bias), all or nothing thinking is almost always going to end with us feeling discouraged.

That’s because all or nothing thinking doesn’t leave room for errors, no matter how minor. It demands perfection; any alternative is unacceptable. But of course, there’s no such thing as perfection, which puts all or nothing thinkers in a hopeless situation. 

How it affects you as a creative

Unhealthy thinking patterns affect all aspects of your life, including your creativity. 

Creatives tend to have a gift for seeing and appreciating the nuance in the world, and that nuance feeds their creativity. But when you start to adopt the unhealthy thinking pattern of all or nothing thinking, that gift is diminished.

One of the biggest reasons this is true is that all or nothing thinking keeps you away from potential creative solutions, instead convincing you that your options are severely limited. When it feels like you have to choose A or B, why would you go looking for C?

All or nothing thinking can also negatively affect your self-esteem. If a creative project doesn’t go the way you wanted it to, all or nothing thinking would tell you that there was nothing good about that project, and that the whole thing was a failure (and by extension, you’re a failure, too).

Similarly, when you think this way, it’s very difficult to learn from your mistakes. When you can’t separate the good from the bad, you may end up giving up on some great ideas that just need small tweaks. All or nothing thinking robs you of the ability to build on the good and improve on the bad; rather, it throws out the entire project. 

How to overcome all or nothing thinking

Once you’re able to recognize all or nothing thinking, then you’re ready to start overcoming it. Here are some things that can help.

Use “and” not “or.”

“Life has never been all or nothing. It’s all and nothing. Forget the binaries.”

Jeanette Winterson

All or nothing thinking ignores the fact that good and bad can coexist. Gray areas are real (and important). 

Train yourself to think in terms of “and,” not “or.” Consider the positives and the negatives in any given situation. Understand that gray areas are okay, that you can have conflicting opinions, that there’s always another option. 

Practice self-compassion.

All or nothing thinking can hurt us in many ways, but it often shows up as a major blow to our self-esteem, making us feel like one mistake means that we’re unworthy or completely lacking.

Learn to give yourself compassion. Give yourself credit for the things you do well and for the good choices you make on a daily basis. Recognize that you are doing the best you can with what you have. Don’t let one flaw define who you are as a whole.

Celebrate small wins.

All or nothing thinking doesn’t allow for baby steps or partial wins. Fight back against that by allowing yourself to celebrate small things. Did you hit a milestone in your project? Did you cross something off your to-do list? Take time to recognize and appreciate the work it took to get you to where you are. You deserve to be celebrated, every step of the way. 

Embrace all the emotions.

An experience usually causes more than one emotion. You might walk away from an experience feeling happy and sad, surprised and disappointed, or scared and relieved. This is normal—even if the emotions seem to conflict!

Be aware of your emotions, and allow yourself to feel all of them. Understand that it is possible for you to feel multiple things at once. This will help you break free from all or nothing thinking patterns. 

The unhealthy thinking pattern of all or nothing thinking is not going to get you where you want to go. Quite the opposite, in fact. When you see the world as black or white, you limit the possibilities available to you. You hold yourself back from nuanced ideas and shades of beauty and success. 

We all make mistakes, but just because we aren’t perfect doesn’t mean we are worthless. Be willing to see the good and the bad, the dark and the light, the happy and the sad, as part of what makes you and the world so beautiful and interesting. 

Life isn’t all or nothing. There is so much in between. 

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