Unlike flexible thinking, which is a helpful way of approaching challenging situations and can help prevent us from becoming overwhelmed, all-or-nothing thinking is more self-limiting and makes people miserable.
All-or-nothing thinking is when we think in black-and-white, success or failure, and win or lose terms.
People who think in black-and-white can’t see shades of grey; they only see either yes or no. It’s why it’s so difficult to argue with someone who is all-or-nothing thinking. They are either with you, or they are against you.
Even if they are not being logical or rational, the fact that they are not willing to see shades of grey shows that they are stuck in a mindset of all-or-nothing thinking. It’s a thinking trap that can make life incredibly difficult to enjoy; because you won’t give yourself a break to see things differently.
People who look at things in black-or-white terms are never happy with anything different from the expected outcome.
They are trapped in a cognitive bias or trap that prevents them from thinking about other possible scenarios in life. For example, “If I don’t publish a book as a writer, I’m a total failure,” I didn’t get that promotion, my career is over,” or If I don’t walk 10,000 a day, I’m not doing enough for my health.”
Have you ever been with someone who quickly gets your back up, knocks you off balance, and makes you question everything you know about the world? That is a sign of all-or-nothing thinking. All-or-nothing thinking can be the most dangerous form of thinking because it makes you feel like you have no other option than to make a decision or not make a decision at all. When you think in black and white, anything else feels like is not worth living — it’s a cognitive trap that makes you unhappy, depressed, and anxious.
Life is not linear — most things are not fixed. Sometimes there is a spectrum of grey, and those shades of grey are perfectly fine.
“The good life is a process, not a state of being,” says Carl Rogers. Dualistic thinking is not the only reality. Life still goes on if you don’t attain your highest and sometimes unrealistic goal. You can think of it as an experience; learn to enjoy the process instead of getting attached to the end result.
There are always lessons learned — use them as stepping stones for your next experience. And most importantly, there are no perfect outcomes. “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind,” William James once said.
When we have all-or-nothing thinking, we automatically view every new situation as either good or bad, right or wrong, and as either great or terrible. This type of thinking is likely to occur when we’re under stress or anxious about something. And because all-or-nothing thinking can lead to irrational decisions, it can be detrimental to our mental and physical health.
Think about the last time you tried to learn a new language by reading the same sentence repeatedly in different translations. You probably thought, “I can’t learn a new language! I’ll never be able to speak!” You probably did not even try, and you were right not to. This is an example of all-or-nothing thinking, a self-defeating and self-limiting type of thinking.
It pays to recognize all-or-nothing thinking in your life and take steps to reduce it in your life. Think about how you react to things; you might be excited, enthusiastic, and willing to work with it or defensive if the results it’s not black or white. If you are also critical of your decisions, you might also become very defensive and anxious because of it. It’s all-or-nothing thinking at work!
Here’s a simple step to overcome all-or-nothing thinking:
- Learn to embrace grey thinking; see the third alternative to every outcome. If your interview performance was “shocking” in your own words, it’s not the end of your job search; find another opportunity.
- Whatever you decide to do, don’t get attached to the outcome; keep an open mind, enjoy the process and be prepared to change course. If you didn’t achieve your fitness goals this month, you can improve next month.
- Invest in small but consistent action; success is a journey, not a destination. Take tiny but consistent actions instead of aiming for a massive outcome in the shortest possible time.
- Commit to writing a few paragraphs or pages of your new book daily instead of aiming to complete a chapter every month.
- There is more to learn from mistakes; value your failures. Don’t over-design or over-engineer your life to avoid mistakes.
- Learn from almost every experience. If you ditch the perfectionist mindset, there are more opportunities to learn and grow.
Mary Tyler Moore explains, “Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave.” Focus on small wins; when you embrace the tiny action mindset, you give yourself more chances to win every day. Winning boosts your confidence and sets you up for your next action.
The more you find ways to ditch black-and-white thinking, the happier you will be. Even if you are more inclined to look for a binary outcome, give yourself a break by noticing your thoughts. And learn to celebrate your progress instead of reminding yourself of the many ways you’ve messed up or ruined your chances.