All-Or-Nothing Mindset: What You Can Do to Change It

Thinking in extremes, popularly known as “all-or-nothing thinking,” prevents people from embracing the reality that life is full of nuances. A common example of this kind of mindset is accepting nothing less than perfection.

It’s detrimental to your mental health for it can make you feel like a failure. Furthermore, it limits your ability to come up with solutions and potential in life. In this article, learn what may cause all-or-nothing thinking and ways to deal with it.

What Is All-Or-Nothing Thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking is one of the negative thought patterns (a.k.a. cognitive distortions) that some people experience, which may be caused by anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.

Childhood trauma — such as abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, an accident, and other forms — can change the way a person views the world. When a child’s trauma exposure isn’t addressed, they grow up to develop exaggerated thought patterns as a way of protecting themselves.

The first step to overcoming this cognitive distortion is by recognizing its presence in your life. You’ll notice these signs in someone (a child or friend) or even yourself:

  • Using words like always, never, perfect, and impossible
  • Difficulty looking at the positive aspects of a situation or considering multiple perspectives
  • Being afraid or feeling unmotivated to try something unless you’re sure of the outcome
  • Having bouts of low self-esteem or self-doubt, which causes you to give up easily
  • Setting unrealistic expectations from yourself and others

How to Overcome All-Or-Nothing Thinking

Below, I’ve outlined a list of ways to manage this negative thought pattern and open yourself up to wonderful possibilities. Changing it takes time, especially when you’ve had it since childhood. The good news is that like any habit, you’ll be able to break it with constant practice (see the tips below) and guidance from a mental health expert.

Help a child cope after a traumatic event.

A traumatic experience leaves a child feeling helpless, terrorized, guilty, and angry. Therapy provides a way for children to heal by talking about the upsetting event that happened and how it currently affects them. Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy or TF-CBT doesn’t only help children, but also their families, learn to handle difficult emotions and receive advice on recovering.

Trauma worksheets are some of the resources available for kids and teenagers. These worksheets complement therapy, allowing trauma victims to do the healing work at home. Some worksheets are aimed at identifying trauma triggers and coping skills while others teach coping statements.

Counteract your negative thoughts.

Failing to meet the unrealistically high expectations you’ve placed on yourself can make you feel incompetent. Maybe you’re thinking that you’re a disaster. Because of that, you rarely experience happiness. Something powerful happens when you examine each of these thoughts and replace them with a positive one.

For example, instead of “This task is too difficult for me. I’m not good enough,” counteract it with a kind thought such as “This is all new to me, but I know I can explore different solutions to solve this.” Notice that the alternative thought acknowledges how you are feeling — that you find something too difficult — but, at the same time, it allows for flexibility. Interestingly, a Scientific American article talks about being more elastic in your thoughts. Flexible thinking helps you welcome new information, which can contribute to your success.

Start a daily gratitude practice.

I am grateful for how I’ve grown through the years. I am grateful for the lessons I learned. I am grateful for the small achievements I make each day. Gratitude quotes or statements are powerful. The term gratitude comes from the Latin word “gratia,” which means graciousness or kindness. What makes gratitude so powerful is that it shifts your thoughts away from scarcity and negative evaluations, which are common in all-or-nothing mindsets, to abundance.

Cultivating gratitude on a daily basis can be as simple as reflecting on what’s good in your life right now. It can be a good night’s sleep, a delicious cup of coffee, or a smile from a friend! Feeling creative? Write a thank you letter to yourself. It can have a profound effect on your confidence and willingness to grow as a person.

Research shows the impact that gratitude has on people. It is associated with positive emotions, autonomy (self-governance), and self-acceptance. Gratitude also allows you to cope in that it prompts you to actively solve problems rather than ignore their existence.

Open up to other possibilities.

Speaking of growth or transformation, having an awareness of the negative feelings caused by all-or-nothing thinking can be used as a starting point for moving forward in life. Start realizing that you have plenty of opportunities right in front of you.

Here’s an exercise to try at home: Make a list of different possibilities or outcomes for each scenario that triggers all-or-nothing thinking. For instance, you didn’t make the soccer team. Rather than settling for the idea “They don’t like me,” helpful explanations may include “I may need to improve my practice,” “I can try other things I enjoy,” and “I can ask for another tryout.”

When it comes to other people who trigger you, it helps to put yourself in their shoes. Shift your focus away from yourself and think of the other person as a blank slate, then list some possibilities. For example, if you lead a team and one of your members made a mistake, consider explanations like “Maybe he didn’t feel well” or “He lacked sleep” or “Perhaps he’s still learning.”

Final Thoughts

All-or-nothing thinking makes you view the world in total opposites, which creates dissatisfaction and a lack of motivation. It hinders you from seeing all the available possibilities. For young people who have experienced trauma, addressing the trauma will help overcome this cognitive distortion and other thought patterns that may have developed.

Seeing a therapist makes a difference in your healing, but remember that you, too, have to do the work. Provide alternatives for a wrong thought. Cultivate gratitude. Seek growth and different perspectives.


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