All or nothing thinking is a type of cognitive distortion in which we see things in black or white terms, with no shades of grey in between. Things are either all good, or all bad. We’re perfect or we’re a failure. If we don’t accomplish all that we’ve set out to do, we’ve done nothing. If someone doesn’t do everything we ask of them, then it’s like they’ve done nothing.
All or nothing thinking leads to stress and anxiety, because we put so much pressure on ourselves to achieve or accomplish all, rather than be left with nothing. And all or nothing thinking can damage our self esteem and lead to depression. If we’re often feeling like we’ve done or achieved nothing, it hurts our self worth and can leave us feeling depressed.
All or Nothing Thinking
This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.
If you find yourself feeling stressed or anxious a lot of the time, or are struggling with low self-esteem or depression, one of the reasons could be all or nothing thinking. In this video we’re going to learn all about all or nothing thinking: what it is, why it can be such a problem, and what we can do to reduce our all or nothing thinking so that it doesn’t have such a negative impact on our lives.
All or nothing thinking is a type of cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and negatively biased patterns of thinking that distort reality and lead us to perceive or evaluate situations and experiences inaccurately. I have a video that describes a number of different types of cognitive distortions that I’ll link to in the description. But i wanted to make a video just about all or nothing thinking because it’s one of the most common cognitive distortions and it can negatively affect us in a lot of different ways.
So when we engage in all or nothing thinking, we see things as black or white with no shades of gray in between. Things are either all good or all bad. If we don’t do something perfectly, we failed. If we don’t accomplish everything we’ve set out to do, we’ve done nothing. Someone makes a mistake or disappoints us and they’ve let us down completely. All or nothing thinking arises in all sorts of contexts so let’s look at some examples.
All or nothing thinking often involves how well we do at something. Either we completely succeed—we ace the test, we come in first place, we get a promotion at work—or we’ve completely failed. We get a b plus when the class average is a c, but because we didn’t get an a plus, as far as we’re concerned we might as well have gotten an f. Or we come in second place with a personal best, but because we didn’t come in first who cares that means nothing. We get a raise, but someone else gets the promotion we wanted, so our careers are going nowhere and we’re terrible at our jobs.
All or nothing thinking can also involve how much we accomplish. If we don’t complete everything we’ve set out to do today, then we’ve achieved nothing. We had 10 things on our to-do list but since we only knocked off eight, what a waste of a day, we got nothing done. Or we were going to clean the kitchen tonight, but after we did the dishes and put them away and wiped the counters and cleaned the sink, we were too tired and had to be up early the next day. So we went to bed before we got around to sweeping and mopping the floor, so we’re just so lazy. Or we cleaned the whole kitchen but it’s not spotless so we might as well not bothered cleaning it at all.
And all or nothing thinking doesn’t allow for any understanding or compassion or mistakes. We get impatient with our children and we’re terrible parents, even if it’s just one lapse over a stressful day in which we handled everything else really well. And we can apply our all or nothing thinking to other people. Someone does us a favor but they forget one thing and so it’s like they’ve done nothing. Someone makes one small mistake on a project at work and they’re completely useless.
So what’s the impact of all or nothing thinking? Well when we apply all or nothing thinking to ourselves, we put so much pressure on ourselves to hit that all level, that we can push ourselves too hard, which can leave us feeling really stressed out or give us a lot of anxiety. And when we don’t accomplish or achieve all, we come away feeling like we’re left with nothing, which can damage our self-worth and self-esteem and can leave us feeling depressed. And when we apply our all or nothing thinking to other people, it can damage personal and professional relationships.
And all or nothing thinking can lead to procrastination, because we know it’s going to be so much work to try to hit that all, all of the time, that we can’t even bring ourselves to get started.
And all or nothing thinking can make it harder for us to achieve our goals, because we give up halfway through when we realize all is no longer a possibility. And so since we’re ending up with nothing, we might as well save ourselves the effort and just give up now. I wasn’t going to drink on weeknights anymore, but i had a glass of wine with dinner so i’ve ruined today and i might as well just finish the rest of the bottle.
So what can we do about our all or nothing, black and white thinking? Well the simple answer is to learn to recognize some shades of gray in between, and to see things along a spectrum rather than on a binary scale. So how do we get ourselves to do this?
Sometimes a helpful first step can be to find a good enough compromise in between all or nothing. We can strive to get ten things done, but seven is going to be good enough. We don’t have to do the next three if we don’t feel like it. We can aspire to achieve the equivalent of an a or a plus on whatever we’re working on, but once we reach a b or b plus level that’s good enough, and we don’t need to worry about getting that extra bit of improvement if it’s going to take too much effort, be too stressful, and cause us a lot of anxiety trying to get there. And it also makes it less likely that we fail in ways that damage our self-esteem and can lead to depression.
But that’s only half the story, because it’s still not really seeing shades of gray. It’s just a single shade of gray in between black or white, which means that if we don’t hit that compromise not quite all but good enough level, we still can end up feeling like it’s nothing.
But achieving c level work instead of b or a plus, getting five of our ten things done instead of seven or ten, is still not nothing. Sometimes that’s all we’re able to do. Sometimes we could do more but the costs in terms of stress or anxiety are too high. And sometimes we could do more, but we choose not to because there are other things going on in our lives that also need our time or attention, or that we just want to do instead. And that’s okay.
So in order to recognize the shades of gray in between black and white, and to be able to accept results and outcomes across a whole spectrum of possibilities, instead of focusing on what we didn’t do, what we didn’t accomplish, what we didn’t achieve, we need to learn to reframe things in terms of what we did do, what we did accomplish, what we did achieve, even if it’s not everything or all we set out to accomplish or achieve. And as long as we can name just one thing, then we’re no longer at nothing. And maybe we didn’t do as well or as much as we’d hoped or wanted or expected, but at least we did something. We barely got started on our to-do lists, but at least we replied to that one email we’ve been putting off for days.
And even those times when it feels like we didn’t do anything, we probably did do at least something. We finished some tasks for work, and even if we didn’t do a really good job, at least we got it done. Or at least we got part of it done. And sometimes these things may not seem like a lot, and they’re certainly not all, but they’re still not nothing.
And even if we spend all day lying on the couch watching tv or, in front of our computers watching YouTube videos, well maybe what we accomplished is that we gave ourselves a bit of a needed break. We took some time to look after ourselves, to reduce the stress and anxiety in our lives, and made it easier on ourselves to get back to doing more things tomorrow.
And even if we do achieve or accomplish so little that it might as well be nothing, that doesn’t make us bad people. When this happens there are reasons it’s happening. Maybe we’re just too tired, don’t have the energy, or are feeling too discouraged or depressed to be able to bring ourselves to do much of anything. And so in these cases we need to try to extend ourselves some compassion and understanding, rather than beating up on ourselves and feeling bad. Because when we don’t achieve or accomplish whatever we set out to achieve or accomplish, being too hard on ourselves serves no purpose. It’s just not helpful.
We often feel like we need to be hard on ourselves in order to push ourselves to do more and to reach our potentials. And while this attitude may be able to provide some motivation in the short term, in the end it catches up with us, because it increases our stress and anxiety, which eventually can become too much for us to manage, and it’s discouraging it can damage our self-worth and self-esteem and can leave us feeling depressed all of which make it more difficult for us to do things in the future. So if we don’t achieve or accomplish all that we set out to do, or even most of it, it’s much better to be understanding with ourselves, and learn to practice some self-compassion and self-acceptance.
And if we need to do better next time, being kind to ourselves now is not going to prevent this. It’s not going to get in the way. But if we adopt an attitude of, I’m such a failure, i can’t do anything right, i got absolutely nothing done, well that can get in the way because it’s so discouraging and demoralizing it can affect our motivation, damage our self-confidence and self-worth and self-esteem, which can negatively impact the quantity and quality of work we’re able to do.
Now we can still acknowledge if we didn’t try our best, if we could have done more, or could have done better, without being too self-critical and putting ourselves down. And maybe we do have to do better next time, but beating up on ourselves isn’t going to help us do that. And then instead of being self-critical and beating up on ourselves, we can reflect on anything we did accomplish—anything we did achieve, anything that went well—and try to find ways to do more of that in the future. And then look at what didn’t go so well and figure out what we need to do differently next time so that things go better.
And everything we’ve just talked about regarding ourselves applies to our interactions with other people as well. Holding others to strict all or nothing standards can damage personal and professional relationships, and doesn’t really encourage people to change their behaviors, and instead tends to lead to conflicts or just leaves them feeling discouraged or resentful.
So if we’re able to shift our mindsets away from all or nothing thinking, and recognize that accomplishments and achievements occur across a broad spectrum rather than just on a binary scale, we’ll be able to do more and perform better, while reducing the amount of stress and anxiety in our lives, and making it less likely that we become depressed, while improving both our personal and professional relationships.
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