You’ve been “good” all day long. Your breakfast was a spinach and egg white omelette, your morning snack was a protein shake, and you just finished eating a chicken salad with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette for lunch.
And then your roommate brings home some Krispy Kreme donuts. “I shouldn’t…” you tell her repeatedly, but you can’t resist the intoxicating smell of sugary goodness.
After taking one bite, you conclude that your "clean-eating day” is ruined, you’ve eaten too many calories now anyway, and you might as well just have 10 more donuts.
I introduce you to all-or-nothing thinking, my friends, which we’ll be unpacking in today’s post.
‘All or Nothing’ What Now?
Psychiatrist Aaron Beck created Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in the 1960s when he was trying to find a new way to conceptualize depression. He discovered that people with depression had automatic negative thoughts about themselves, others, and the world, which greatly influenced their feelings and behaviours. It was also thanks to him that the cognitive triangle was born:
The Cognitive Triangle reminds us of one very important fact: between stimulus and response there is a space, and it’s what happens in that space that can determine why we feel or behave in the ways that we do. Said differently, the interpretations we make about something in the space between stimulus and response often determines how we feel or behave.
Beck further discovered that many of us have a number of cognitive distortions, which are habitual ways of thinking that are inaccurate and/or negatively biased. When we repeat the same cognitive distortions over time, they can become even more engrained, automatic, and apparently “factual” to us even if they remain inaccurate and flawed.
All-or-nothing thinking is a type of cognitive distortion that I see extremely frequently in my practice—and it’s one that I’ve had to practice working through a lot as an individual over the years. Simply put, all-or-nothing thinking is about thinking in extremes. You see things as very black-or-white rather than appreciating the shades of grey in between.
All-or-nothing thinking is extremely common in the world of nutrition and physical health. Take a moment to see if any of the below examples sound familiar to you:
If I’m not sweating my butt off during a workout, I might as well not exercise at all.
If I have one “bad” food, I might as well stop eating healthy for the rest of the day.
If my body doesn’t look like the insanely rare “model” body type, it’s bad.
Carbs are “bad,” so having a piece of bread means my entire diet has been thrown off the rails for the rest of the day.
I’ve had one drink (of alcohol), so I might as well have five.
Having one cheat day means the rest of the week is a write-off.
This style of thinking can also apply to the world of mental health:
I’ve had a more relaxed morning, so the rest of the day is a write-off; I shouldn’t even bother trying to do something productive and/or meaningful with the rest of my time.
If I make one mistake at work, I’m a horrible employee.
If my partner is annoying sometimes, it means that they’re an annoying person in general and that we shouldn't be together.
Other people who experience success are way more advantaged and privileged than I am; I’m just an unlucky pile of crap.
You’ll notice that this style of thinking usually causes us to box things into overly simplistic and opposing categories: good vs. bad, capable vs. stupid, advantaged vs. disadvantaged, productive vs. lazy, etc.
Why All or Nothing Thinking Doesn’t Work
1. It leads us to inaccurate conclusions.
Part of why CBT can be so useful is that it causes us to pause and really examine if our thoughts even make sense. Remember: just because our thoughts feel right or true to us doesn’t mean they are.
Let’s take the example of thinking that having a “bad" food means your entire diet has fallen off the rails. This is completely false. Yes, eating a Krispy Kreme donut will add 190 calories to your day, but if you were to just leave it at that and continue eating healthy foods for the rest of the day and week, the impact would be minimal. Compare that to saying “SCREW IT” and eating 10 donuts and then binging on chips and chocolate for the rest of the night… now you’ve consumed upwards of 3,000 calories and will wake up feeling bloated, lethargic, and discouraged, which will only further "prove" that you’ve “ruined your diet and should just give up.”
2. It sets you up for failure and disappointment.
Thinking in extremes affects the expectations we set for ourselves. When we define “success” as exercising for an hour seven days a week and only eating chicken and vegetables, we’re creating a standard that’s impossible to maintain in the long-term. And any time we don’t eat chicken and vegetables—HEAVEN FORBID WE EAT A MANGO—we’ll consider ourselves a “failure.”
This leads me to another problem with all-or-nothing thinking, which is that it is linked to feelings of shame. Rather than accurately realizing that your expectations are the problem, you falsely conclude that you are the problem. You eat the damn mango and tell yourself you have no willpower, that you’re never going to be healthy, and more. You start hyper-fixating on what’s wrong with you rather than questioning the framework that you’re working in.
3. It prevents you from addressing the root problem and making healthier choices.
As you can now see, the problem that needs to be addressed is your style of thinking, not your personality. If you continue to think in extremes in different areas of your life, you will continue to feel ashamed, disappointed, and discouraged. If you do not become skilled at seeing the grey areas of situations, you are not addressing the root problem.
How to Stop All-or-Nothing Thinking
First, notice when you’re doing it. If words like “always” or “never” are common in your everyday vernacular, it’s likely that you’re using all-or-nothing thinking. Here are some other good exercises to help you increase your awareness:
Write down what you define as “successful” or “unsuccessful” in different areas of your life. You might notice that, similarly to the person in our introductory example, your ideas of “success” highlight some unrealistically high expectations that could be questioned.
Write down different unwritten rules you have about different areas of your life. What are some “rules” you have about diet and exercise? What are some rules you have about relationships? For example, if you say, “My partner should always be affectionate towards me,” that’s an example of all-or-nothing thinking. As such, if they aren’t as affectionate with you after having a long day at work, you might inaccurately conclude that they're "never affectionate” or, even further, that they’re a bad partner (even if you know that this is entirely untrue).
Practice seeing the grey areas of life and softening your language. In my personal experience, this can take a lottttt of practice. Sometimes in session I’ll actually write out people’s opposing, extreme beliefs on a whiteboard and ask them to work their way down from each side until they’ve come to a half-way point. Then I ask them to pick a point that’s less extreme but that still resonates with them. The image below provides an example of what the start of this exercise might look like, which I'd continue working on with a patient throughout the session:
• Ask yourself if you would want to your friend or a loved one to follow the same standard that you're holding for yourself. Or, ask yourself, "If I were a nutritionist or therapist, would I say this style of thinking/expectation is healthy?" This can help you enter a more objective mindset.
• Look at the big picture. All-or-nothing thinking usually causes us to hyper-fixate on the negative and draw inaccurate conclusions about situations from there. Zoom out and look at the big picture. Ask yourself, “Does this one donut really determine if I’m healthy or not?” Of course not! It’s a donut. Remind yourself of this: it’s just a donut, not some “sign” of your moral worth. In fact, the whole “it’s just a ______” is a great phrase to start using if you’re an all-or-nothing thinker as it helps downplay the severity of the consequences, which you’re likely overestimating.
The Bottom Line
Cognitive distortions are habitual, faulty ways of thinking that can negatively affect our feelings and behaviours. All-or-nothing thinking is one such type of cognitive distortion that causes us to see things in “black and white," extreme ways rather than appreciating the complexity of situations. As all-or-nothing thinking can cause us to feel discouraged and ashamed, it’s an important habit to break if we want to create healthy, lasting change.
To avoid falling into the all-or-nothing thinking trap, notice when you’re doing it. Usually, words like “always” or “never” are a dead giveaway. Try your best to figure out what a “softer,” gentler, or more realistic expectation would be, while remembering that one moment in time does not have the power to define your self-worth as a human.
Do you struggle with all-or-nothing thinking? In what areas of your life do you find this cognitive distortion rearing its head? How have you coped? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!
If you or someone you know could use some extra support, please do not hesitate to reach out. We are offering in-person psychotherapy & nutritional counselling sessions at our Markham and Vaughan offices and online as well.