All or Nothing Thinking

All of nothing thinking


I used to consider myself an extremist, not because I was an adventure seeker living life on the edge. Rather, I either fully committed to a task or I didn't do it at all. Life was either running smoothly or I was a wreck. I was an all or nothing thinker. Life existed on polar ends and unbeknownst to me at the time, living in extremes felt safe. How could extremes feel safe? Well, it kept me out of the gray areas of life and away from uncertainty, which made me really uncomfortable and feel out of control. 

Always..Never...Should...Nothing...Perfect...Only...Must...Have to...

These are just a few absolute terms that come to mind when I think of all or nothing thinking, also known as black or white thinking. Do these words show up in your life?

All or nothing thinkers tends to think in extremes. In my practice, I see women who strive for perfection and if they don't meet their expectations, they see themselves as failures. They are either super organized or borderline hoarders. Either "clean" eaters or say "f" it and eat an entire box of cookies. 

It's easy to get trapped in all or nothing thinking and to be completely unaware that your mind works in such extreme ways. Keep reading to find out how your all or nothing thinking is getting in your way and keeping you stuck. 


1) Limits perspective: All or nothing thinking does not allow for much diversity in one's thought process. This type of thinking can limit one's opportunities and keep a person from growing. All throughout graduate school I thought, "I only want to work with children and families." After graduate school, I was offered a position working with children and families AND adults. Gasp! What's a girl to do? I accepted the position working with adults... and loved it! Had I embraced black or white thinking, I wouldn't be working with the adult women that I love working with today!

2) Creates emotional turmoil: All or nothing thinking creates artificial needs in life. This is the tendency to think that you must have something, you must do something, and life has to be in a certain way. This doesn’t allow for other possibilities to show up in your life. It can keep you stuck, rigid, inflexible, and can prevent your mind from expanding.

3) Leaves little room for self- compassion: Consider this, when you are faced with life's struggles, you make a mistake, or failure occurs, how do you talk to yourself? If you are an all or nothing thinker, chances are you speak negatively to yourself and your dialogue includes many absolute terms. Self criticism is directly linked to anxiety and depression. According to research by Dr. Kristen Neff, self compassion acts as a protective agent against self criticism, anxiety and depression. Self compassion can help an individual develop resilience, helps break the cycle of negativity, and improve overall well-being.

4) Makes you less willing to compromise: When you view the world in over-simplistic and rigid terms, you are less likely to cooperate and compromise with others. This can cause a serious strain in relationships, both personal and professionally.


1) Identify & challenge the absolute terms: Notice when you use words such as, always, never, should, nothing, perfect, impossible, etc. Challenge yourself and check the facts! Ask yourself, "Is this really true?" Find examples!

2) Consider alternative options: When you find yourself assessing a situation, consider multiple options, not just one. Ask yourself, "Can I look at this situation another way?" "Would someone else see this situation differently?"

3) Acceptance paradox: Two seemingly opposing thoughts and feelings can both be true. Motherhood is both the most rewarding and loving gift as well as the hardest role I have in my life. Accepting the paradox is also a vital step in being able to make a change in your life. Practice accepting where you currently are in life AND recognize areas where you want to change. For example, "I appreciate and love my body for what it can do and I plan to lose weight so I will have enough energy to be able to run after my kids."  

4) Get comfortable with the color gray: The gray area in between extreme type of thinking can cause uncertainty which often makes people uncomfortable. The more you start to see and accept the gray areas of life, the more you will be able to consider other possibilities and see the bigger picture.

5) Learn to compromise: All or nothing thinking not only limits your perspective on life, but it can also put a strain on relationships. When you view the world in over-simplistic, rigid, and strict terms, you are less likely to cooperate and compromise with others. All or nothing thinking leaves very little room for perspective taking, empathy, and vulnerability, which are all important factors to have in any healthy relationship.