Tired of feeling like a failure or just waiting for everything to go wrong? All-or-nothing thinking doesn’t have to control your life anymore. Learn what it is and how you can overcome it.
What Is All-or-Nothing Thinking?
All-or-nothing thinking is characterized by viewing the world from two extremes. Either everything is perfect, or it’s the end of the world. All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion, which means faulty and inaccurate thinking. This is the most important thing to remember—the negative thought pattern dragging you down isn’t true!
Disclaimer: We are honored to help you overcome all-or-nothing thinking! If you are struggling to find the help you need, please note that all content found on this website is not to be considered professional medical advice. It is always best to consult a doctor or licensed therapist with questions or concerns about your physical or mental health. Check out Mental Health America’s helpful list of therapists.
How To Spot All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking is usually negative, but someone with all-or-nothing thinking can see only good. When this happens, the person can’t imagine any room for personal improvement and may feel that everyone else is the problem. If you have all-or-nothing thinking, you tend to think in black and white without any wiggle room for grey issues.
Signs of All-or-Nothing Thinking:
- You give up easily
- Success and growth always seem out of reach
- You expect the worst
- Trusting others when you’re in a relationship is challenging
- You make broad, sweeping generalizations
- You often feel hopeless and defeated
- Life is black and white; there are no gray areas
- It’s difficult for you to see where you’ve succeeded
- Anything less than 100% feels like a failure
- Even the slightest mistake feels like a catastrophe
- You expect the worst
- When you are successful, you don’t see any need for improvement or growth
- You experience irrational thought patterns
- You find yourself regularly making wrong conclusions
- You can’t imagine a positive outcome
Whether this distortion dominates your whole life or infrequently drags you down, you need tools to regain control of your brain. This cognitive distortion can be present with other mental health conditions, but anyone can suffer from moments of all-or-nothing thinking.
Examples of All-or-Nothing Thinking (Plus Tips for Growth)
It’s Either 100% Success or Absolute Failure
- “It’s perfect. There’s no need for improvement.”
- “How can you criticize me like that?”
- “I missed a week of running, so I might as well give up on training for the 5K.”
- “I’ll never learn, so why try?”
- “I’m so upset I got a B+ on my paper.”
- “This project didn’t turn out the way I expected. I’m a complete failure.”
- “I can’t believe I said something that stupid. They are going to think I’m an idiot.”
- “Why didn’t I give the right answer? I’m so stupid.”
Let’s Look at the…Dark Side?
- “Even if I get the job, my new coworkers won’t like me.”
- “Things are fine now, but it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong.”
- “Do they really love me?”
- “They only gave me the promotion because they wanted to increase my workload.”
- “There’s no way you will hire me after such a terrible interview.”
- “What if they fire me because I didn’t turn the project in on time?”
It’s Only “Always” & “Never”
- “You always cancel plans! I can never count on you to follow through on anything.”
- “I can never do anything right.”
- “I always mess things up.”
- “You’re never there for me when I need you.”
- “You always cut me down.”
- “I can never live up to your expectations.”
- “I will always be like my dad.”
- “I will never lose the weight.”
- “I always come in last, no matter how hard I try.”
- “I’ll always be alone.”
Results of All-or-Nothing Thinking
- Relationship conflict
- Increased risk of depression and suicide
- Absorbing blame for the actions of others
- Unable to take feedback from others
- Viewing others with black and white thinking
- Low motivation or avoidant behaviors
- Low self-perception
- Frustration and low self-worth
What to Do If You Have an All-or-Nothing Personality
There are many steps you can take to begin to reframe your thinking and overcome the all-or-nothing personality.
#1 Be Curious
Recognize when you’re engaging in all-or-nothing thinking and be curious about what triggered that negative thinking pattern.
- Look out for absolutist words. Notice when you start thinking or saying things like never, always, impossible, failure, idiot, stupid, etc.
- Ask yourself what triggered your response and look for the patterns. Does it happen at a specific time of day (early morning, late at night?), with certain people, or in certain situations?
#2 Learn to Self-Regulate
All-or-nothing thinking often includes extreme emotions—this could consist of strong feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anger, and fear. Look for ways to help you self-regulate, so your emotions aren’t controlling you.
Some methods of self-regulation:
- Put your hand over your heart and take a deep breath in
- Do a feelings check using an emotion wheel
- Gently tap your forearms or upper thighs
- Drink ice water
- Play with a fidget toy
#3 Practice Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion
With all-or-nothing thinking, there’s a lot of criticism and judgment. To combat this, start practicing self-acceptance and compassion. It’s not easy, but you can do this.
Action Steps: Use these positive affirmations and truths to replace negative critical thoughts.
- Even though I feel like a failure, I still choose to accept myself.
- I can learn from this mistake. It doesn’t define who I am.
- I didn’t meet my goal, but I still accomplished a lot.
- I am worthy of good things. I don’t have to accept or expect the worst.
- I choose to accept myself even though I’ve returned to a harmful coping mechanism. I acknowledge that it served me well in the past and indicates my will to survive adverse circumstances. There is hope for me, and I can grow to learn helpful coping mechanisms.
- This behavior is an indication that I’m hurting right now. What is it that I need?
- I can’t control outcomes, but I can regain control of how I respond to situations.
- I don’t have to earn love or acceptance.
#4 Define (& Redefine) Success to Overcome All-or-Nothing Thinking
Think about it. If you define success as never failing, never making a mistake, always saying the right thing, always following through on your goals, and meeting every task with 100% energy and focus… you clearly aren’t human.
When your definitions of success are over-the-top unrealistic, this sets you up to always feel like you are never good enough.
Begin to set realistic goals for yourself, and make room for not meeting those goals.
Here’s an example: you’re writing a novel and would love to write 10,000 words by the end of the week. Usually, you churn out about 8,000. If you set your goal at 10,000 but only write 9,000, all-or-nothing thinking might make you feel like the whole week was a total failure.
In reality, you just wrote 1,000 more words than you usually do. This is cause for celebration! If you take the time to redefine success, you can step back, look at what has happened rationally and come to a new conclusion.
If you’re struggling to do this alone, reach out to someone you trust and ask them to help you look at things with a less emotional and distorted view.
Pro Tip: Before you start a project or begin a new endeavor (like learning something new or meeting new people), ask yourself what success will look like in that situation.
Here are some examples.
Instead of expecting: I will connect with 5 new people and engage in riveting and intelligent conversation for the entire event.
My reasonable goal is: To walk away with one new connection to who I will reach out on social media or via email.
Success is: Self-regulating when I get nervous.
Instead of expecting: I will say and do all the right things to make my partner feel loved.
Success is: Remaining emotionally available during a conversation that I usually shut down.
Instead of expecting: I will lose 20 pounds in 2 months, I exercise 5 days a week (even though I’ve only been exercising once a month), and I will eliminate all processed foods so that I cook three meals a day (even though I currently eat out every day).
My reasonable goal is: will exercise 2 days a week and start cooking one meal a day. From there, I will incrementally increase exercise and decrease unhealthy food.
Success is: Every time I exercise and make a healthy food choice, even if it doesn’t meet my goal.
Action Step: Use a worksheet to help you visualize the thinking that holds you back and what can help you overcome this cognitive distortion. Remember to celebrate the small wins and accept there are multiple outcomes for a given situation.
More Examples of All-or-Nothing Thinking
Let’s look at some scenarios to understand what all-or-nothing thinking looks like in daily life.
Scenario #1 Tom Gives Up
Tom has been trying to get control of his eating and set a strict diet that prohibits all processed foods and desserts. After two weeks of eating healthy, he’s even started strength training at the gym.
When he gets to work on Friday, vanilla cake with buttercream frosting is in the break room—his favorite.
He avoids the break room all day, but after his boss criticizes him about a recent project, he finds himself in the break room frantically eating cake. Feeling ashamed and a complete failure, he decides he’ll never be healthy or fit and adds another piece of cake to his plate.
Because of all-or-nothing thinking, Tom doesn’t consider how far he’s come in the past two weeks. He forgets that he’s been self-disciplined and successful at meeting his goals.
This scenario is further complicated because it’s not just about eating and exercising; one of his core needs is to feel accepted by others. When his boss criticizes him, he’s not prepared to handle the rejection and injustice of his boss’s words. This criticism causes him to return to one of his coping mechanisms—food.
- When you try to remove an unhealthy coping mechanism, plan a healthy one to take its place.
- This requires mindfulness and awareness of what triggers and what you do when triggered.
- In this scenario, criticism and rejection trigger Tom. One of his coping mechanisms is food. In a way, giving up is also a coping mechanism.
- Remember, you have coping mechanisms for a reason. If you fall back into those old patterns, don’t criticize yourself, believing you’ll never change.
- Consider working on the root (the thing that created a need for the coping mechanism in the first place) before removing the coping mechanism.
In Tom’s case, a stringent diet and exercise regime won’t help him overcome an all-or-nothing mindset. Instead, he could focus on finding self-acceptance and becoming more confident. This would enable him to see that exercise, and healthy eating isn’t what he needs to find acceptance; instead, they can complement his healing journey.
Tom could start practicing self-acceptance when he found himself eating cake in the breakroom.
Something powerful happens when you look at yourself in a moment of perceived shamefulness and extend mercy instead of judgment.
Tom can also practice self-acceptance by not dismissing the last 2 weeks of hard work. Even though he feels like a failure, he doesn’t have to give up.
- Assert the truth
- Express gratitude
- Acknowledge the old coping mechanism
- Determine not to give up
- Look to the future
Here’s what that could sound like, “I’ve worked hard the last 2 weeks, and I’m proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished. I have resorted to an old coping mechanism, but I will not allow that to stop me from what I’m working towards. Moving forward, I will adjust my diet to be more sustainable, and I will start to explore my emotions and why I feel so triggered by my boss.”
Scenario #2 Jill Feels Like a Failure at Work
Jill works hard at her content marketing job; she keeps her tasks organized and always looks for unexpected variables.
Last week, she scheduled the weekly email to go out but accidentally scheduled it for Wednesday instead of the usual Thursday. She didn’t realize it until it was too late. She feels like an idiot and a complete failure.
She emails her boss, Janet, to let her know, apologizing for such a big mistake. This failure haunts Jill for months, and she feels anxious every time she works on an email campaign. She asks her assistant to schedule the emails, so she doesn’t have to worry about messing it up again.
This is classic all-or-nothing thinking; Jill has exceptionally high standards for herself and sees any small mistake as a sign of being inept and inadequate. She may even worry about job security, fearing that one day her boss will fire her because of the long trail of failures (she thinks) she’s committed over the months and years.
If Jill also struggles with imposter syndrome, she sees this as a sign confirming she is an imposter. She battles this with perfectionism, but the fear and stress will be cumulative. Jill is on the fast track to burnout.
Vanessa Van Edwards and Dr. Kevin Cokley talk about overcoming imposter syndrome, which goes hand in hand with all-or-nothing thinking.
- Reframe what just happened when all-or-nothing thinking leaves you feeling worthless and inadequate. In this case, Jill can reframe what happened by saying, “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and it’s OK that I sent the email out early.”
- Use the perceived failure as an opportunity to ask some questions:
-Do I need to slow down, so I’m not missing small details?
-Is this an indication of failure or just a simple mistake?
-Is my workload too heavy? Can any of my tasks be allocated to someone else? Do I need to discuss with my boss about hiring another person?
-What is behind my extreme distress when I make a mistake?
- Remember that mistakes are a part of life and are a learning opportunity.
Join a Facebook group for your profession. Facebook groups or other professional communities are great for support and staying grounded. If Jill was in a digital marketing Facebook group, she could post her email gaff in the group—and as everyone in digital marketing knows, email errors abound.
Whatever the sector, you can connect with others who are making the same mistakes. It’s harder to bemoan what an idiot you are for one mistake when you realize everyone in your sector has made the same mistake at least once.
Always feel like a failure or an imposter, be grateful for your successes. Depending on the situation, you can do this in your head or write it down in a notebook.
Let’s think about Jill here. She’s a successful individual who is hard-working, diligent, and cares about her projects. So, Instead of embracing fear and self-doubt, she could train her brain to be confident and hopeful.
As you recall the positives in your career and life, it’s vital to include gratitude. You’re not making a list to convince yourself how great you are. Instead, you’re embracing gratitude for the good in your life. Studies show this has a powerful impact on your brain and how you interact with the world around you.
Scenario #3 Jason & Lynn Go On a Date
Jason is on the first date with Lynn, and everything has been going great. They’ve been laughing together, chattering, and Jason feels a connection with her.
Until dessert comes.
He suddenly starts to feel shy, and when he feels shy, he loses all communication skills. He comments about Lynn being a good eater and sees several microexpressions flash across her face. He hates it when people comment on how or what women eat, and I can’t believe he just said that.
The rest of the date is uneventful, but Jason thinks Lynn hates him and sees the whole date as a catastrophe. He never calls and doesn’t reply when she texts a couple of days later.
With all-or-nothing thinking, Jason couldn’t see all of the positives from his date with Lynn. In his mind, that one moment completely erased the happiness of the evening. He concludes that she hates him without giving her a chance to voice her feelings.
Here’s what he could have said instead of going quiet:
“I don’t know why I said that; I’m sorry. I suddenly got nervous. I’ve really enjoyed our date so far.”
Instead of assuming that Lynn hates him, this open communication allows her to express how it made her feel or to tell him not to worry about it.
- When you say something rude or that feels stupid, pause and take a breath.
- Replace your negative thinking patterns of, “I’m such an idiot!” or, “Why did I say that!” with, “It’s OK, just say what you mean.”
- Count backward 5-4-3-2-1 and then apologize or clarify!
But what if the conversation has moved on? You’ve lost your chance to retract or clarify what you just said. If it was just something odd or awkward, brush it off and consciously decide not to dwell on it. If you said something rude or offensive, it’s good to go back and clarify.
Try saying something like,
“Can we go back to what I said a minute ago? It’s bothering me, and I don’t want to move on without clarifying….”
While this may feel uncomfortable, people appreciate it when you clarify your words and intentions.
- Next time you say something you wish you hadn’t, resist your automatic response of shutting down and pulling back.
- Tell your friend, partner, date, or loved one that you’re sorry, and give a simple explanation (e.g., I wasn’t thinking, I felt hurt and lashed out, I don’t feel that way, etc.).
Life adversity and high stress have been connected with cognitive distortions and could cause all-or-nothing thinking. While everyone may experience all-or-nothing thinking at times, the presence of multiple stressors or traumas increases the likelihood of this cognitive distortion becoming psychopathology.
You may have all-or-nothing thinking because of life events that have made you feel overwhelmed, helpless, and hopeless. Negative situations can cause a cognitive distortion where you expect and look for the negative. All-or-nothing thinking may also be present with post-traumatic stress disorder.
All-or-nothing thinking is terrible because it impedes your relationships, undermines your confidence, and can lead to other mental health conditions. All-or-nothing thinking is a severe cognitive distortion but one that can be treated.
To stop all-or-nothing thinking, you will have to retrain your brain. Be curious about what situations trigger all-or-nothing thinking and practice compassion instead of criticism. Over time, you will learn to respond healthier to situations that used to trigger fear and anxiety.
Now that you’ve started your journey to crush cognitive distortion, keep shifting your mindset with 120 Positive Daily Affirmations. Plus, don’t miss these 10 Surprising Affirmations to Instantly Feel Better!