Recognizing Cognitive Distortions: All-or-Nothing Thinking

A cognitive distortion is an automatic way of repeatedly interpreting a situation that causes us to not consider other ways of thinking about it. When we over-rely on cognitive distortions, we usually interpret events in such a way that fuels emotions such as anxiety, depression, or anger. All-or-nothing thinking is one such distortion.

All-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in extremes. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was totally good or totally bad. If you are not perfect, then you are a failure. This binary way of thinking does not account for shades of gray, and can be responsible for a great deal of negative evaluations of yourself and others.

Take for example a job interview. During the interview, you are caught off-guard by a question, and do not answer it as well as you would have liked. If you view this experience through the lens of all-or-nothing thinking, you are likely to discount your performance during the other 95% of the interview, and think that it was “horrible” and a “thorough waste of time,” triggering feelings of disappointment and shame. This cognitive distortion sets an unreasonable rule in which any outcome less than 100% equates to 0%. It is easy to see how that all-or-nothing thinking can lead to a lot of harsh negative judgments about yourself, lowering self-esteem in the process.

This cognitive distortion can disrupt attempts to change behavior, such as sticking to a diet. If you think about your diet in all-or-nothing terms, it is likely that one indiscretion will derail all of your effort. Remember, anything short of 100% might as well be 0%, so if you stick to your diet 90% of the time, all-or-nothing thinking will have you believe that you’ve totally failed, and that you might as well eat whatever you want.

The antidote to this distortion is making an effort to look for shades of gray. To recognize, “I was thrown off by that one interview question, but the rest of my performance was solid.” Or, “one brownie doesn’t erase the success I’ve had with my diet. I’ve made significant changes and can expect things won’t always go perfectly.”

Identifying and reworking cognitive distortions comes from a cognitive behavioral treatment called cognitive restructuring. Explore these links to learn more about CBT and cognitive restructuring.

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