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  • Charlotte McKernan

You Don’t Have To Believe Everything You Think: All-or-Nothing Thinking

Cognitive distortions are irrational thought patterns that can influence our emotions in negative ways. Although we all experience distorted beliefs and thoughts to some extent, more repetitive and extreme cognitive distortions can be harmful to our health and our relationships.


For an intro to cognitive distortions, click here.


All-or-nothing thinking is one of the most common types of cognitive distortions that people experience. All-or-nothing thinking, also known as polarized thinking, divides everything from your view of yourself to your life experiences into black-or-white terms.

Thinking in such extremes limits the possibilities: You are either a success or a failure. Your performance is either totally good or totally bad. Your husband either doesn’t care about you or would do anything for you. This binary way of thinking often places people or situations in “either/or” categories and employs words like “always” or “never.”


Example 1:

A young woman on a diet eats a slice of cake at a work party and tells herself, “I’ve blown my diet completely.” She then thinks of herself as a total failure and finds herself asking, “Why even try? My health is ruined.”


Example 2:

A man tries to comfort his wife when she’s crying following a disagreement. He manages to sit on the bed with her instead of leaving the room, but he can’t quite bring himself to touch her lovingly. He thinks to himself, “I’m a total failure as a husband.”


Of course, the world is not made up of either/ or, two possible situations. There are numerous shades of grey and a whole rainbow of colors that add nuance and detail to our lives.


All-or-nothing thinking holds us back from experiencing some of the richness of our lives and creates unrealistic expectations for ourselves and for our loved ones. This cognitive distortion sets an unreasonable rule in which any outcome less than 100% equates to 0%. It is easy to see how this thinking can lead to harsh negative judgments about others and yourself, lowering your self-esteem in the process.


Steps to transform all-or-nothing thinking:


1. Notice when a thought is polarized/ extreme: “I am an utter failure,” “I will never overcome this,” “He doesn’t love me at all,” “Our relationship is ruined.”


2. Look for the grey areas and the middle ground. Ask yourself, when was this not true? What evidence does not support this thought? What is an alternative thought? “I enjoyed a delicious and healthy breakfast this morning,” “He shows that he loves me when he makes dinner, picks me up from work, and spends time hiking with me,” “By sitting with her right now, I am showing that I care and I’m worried.”


3. Extend yourself compassion. Being kind to ourselves is just as (if not more!) important than being kind to others. “My health will not be derailed by one missed work out. It’s okay to relax,” “It is not possible to be perfect and I’m doing the best I can,” “This mistake does not define me.”


4. Make an appointment with a therapist or counselor. Sometimes, it can be very hard to notice our own thought patterns. A therapist can help you notice unhelpful or unwanted cognitive distortions and teach you how to hold more space in your life for complex possibilities.


Charlotte McKernan is a couple and individual therapist in Fort Collins, CO.