5 Ways to Expand All-or-Nothing Thinking

By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

You’re either successful or you’re worthless. You’re smart or you’re stupid. You’re a writer or you’re an artist. Your life is wonderful or it’s terrible. Something is right or it’s wrong.

These are examples of all-or-nothing thinking (also known as black-and-white thinking). According to Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist, this kind of thinking “means you have only two options: things have to be one way or another, and there is no gray area or in-between.”

All-or-nothing thinking can manifest in all sorts of circumstances. But Thorn sees it most often in how people view and define themselves, their values and their beliefs. “They use it to measure their worth as a person, and to make sense of their experiences and the world around them.”

She shared these examples: “I am a Republican or Democrat,” “I believe in a higher power or I don’t,” “I’m good at something or I’m bad at something,” “I’m the kind of person that can do things or I’m not.”

She also sees this thinking in individuals who are perfectionistic, highly anxious and have low self-esteem or self-worth.

All-or-nothing thinking is problematic in many ways. It’s limiting and “creates extreme and impossible expectations.” It requires achieving the positive part of each thought (e.g., being successful, smart, leading a great life) with absolute perfection. Because that’s unattainable, people settle on the other option: the negative. As a result, people view themselves and their experiences negatively, which often leads to depression, anxiety, low motivation and a sinking self-esteem, she said.

There’s also no room for error or recognizing or measuring growth, Thorn said. For instance, many of her clients start their sessions by saying they’ve had an awful week. They even believe they’ve taken steps back. They’ll point out a mistake and say, “See?! I’m hopeless!”

However, when Thorn asks them to discuss the details, she’ll notice many positive moments and accomplishments, which clients don’t see. All-or-nothing thinking forbids variety. Not only do they miss their progress, but their motivation for moving forward wanes, she said.

Below, Thorn shared how to expand all-or-nothing thinking – both in how you see yourself and the world.

  1. Separate self-worth from performance. 

“The problem with basing how you feel about yourself on your performance is that your opinion of yourself is in constant flux, and is rarely positive,” Thorn said. Even when your opinion is positive, it’s still short-lived because performance changes.

Instead, Thorn encouraged readers to focus on qualities that are more firmly rooted within. For instance, focus on how you’re compassionate and honest, have empathy for others and value your family.

  1. Use the word “and,” instead of “or.”

Thorn shared this example: Instead of “I’m a good person or a bad person,” consider “I’m a good person and a bad person.” That is, “I have a lot of great qualities, and I do a lot of good things, and sometimes I make mistakes and poor decisions.”

Instead of “I had a great week or a terrible week,” consider, “I had some wonderful things happen this week and some things that were difficult.”

You also might say you have nice eyes and you’re curvy and you’re a parent and you’re an attorney. You’re spiritual and you have spiritual doubts.

Using the word “and” helps us become less judgmental and more understanding of both ourselves and others.

  1. Focus on your positive qualities. 

Thorn assigns this activity to her clients: Every night before bed, write down one to three things you did that day. Then write down the positive quality those actions reveal. For instance, you might write: “I went to work.” This shows you’re hardworking and dedicated to your job.

Thorn has noticed that many people will minimize these qualities. They might say, “Well, I had to go to work or I’d get fired. Big deal. A lot of people go to work.” However, you could’ve called in sick. To this you might reply, “Yes, I went to work that day. But two months ago, I was sick for a whole week. So I can’t say I’m a hard worker.”

But the beauty of expanding all-or-nothing thinking is that you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to do something 100 percent of the time, she said. So you might realize, “You’re right! I did go to work today, and that says something good about me.” When you think this way, you feel much better about yourself, and you become more energized and motivated, Thorn said.

  1. Consider all options. 

When you’re using all-or-nothing thinking, you might be making decisions without all the information, Thorn said. For instance “My son will play either baseball or soccer” is limiting. Instead you might consider if your son is even interested in sports; what other sports he’s interested in more; and activities he might enjoy instead of or together with sports, she said.

Instead of labeling yourself Republican or Democrat, you might consider if you fully identify with one category; completely disagree with both; and are moderate — and if categorizing your views is even helpful, she said.

  1. Explore these questions. 

According to Thorn:

  • What are my values? How do those values fit into my thoughts, questions and decisions?
  • What are the pros and cons to both sides of the argument?
  • What are the facts, and what are my assumptions?
  • What are the emotions I feel or felt? When you list an array of emotions, it’s easier to see the situation isn’t black and white. For instance, “Throughout my job interview, I felt confident, nervous, embarrassed, proud and excited. Therefore, the interview wasn’t all good or all bad.”

All-or-nothing thinking is rigid and anything but helpful. Expanding your perspective inspires and encourages you. It cultivates connections with others. And it helps you lead a richer, more vibrant life.