We all tend to think in extremes. All-or-nothing thinking is a common cognitive distortion. You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

Ex.) A straight A student gets a B on an assignment. She thinks, “I am a total failure.”

A person with this thinking pattern typically sees things in terms of either/or. Something is either good or bad, right or wrong, all or nothing. Black-and-white thinking fails to acknowledge that there are almost always several shades of gray that exist between black and white. By seeing only two possible sides or outcomes to something, a person ignores the middle — and possibly more reasonable — ground.

Polarized Thinking: Things are black and white, good or bad. You have to be perfect or you’re a failure. There is no middle ground.

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The key to overcoming polarized thinking is to stop making black or white judgments. People are not happy or sad, loving or rejecting, brave or cowardly, smart or stupid. They fall somewhere along a continuum. They are a little bit of each. Human beings are just too complex to be reduced to dichotomous judgments. If you have to make these kinds of ratings, think in terms of percentages: “About 30% of me is scared to death, and 70% is holding on and coping. About 60% of the time he seems terribly preoccupied with himself, but there’s the 40% when he can be really generous … 5% of the time I’m an ignoramus, the rest of the time I do all right.”