• Ali McNab

All or Nothing Thinking

All or Nothing thinking comes up regularly for my clients and I’ve been reflecting on my own experience of it; what it does for me and what it stops me from doing. The highs and lows of business and life and what happens when I allow challenges and setbacks to be magnified and misinterpreted by distortions of my own thinking.

What is All or Nothing Thinking?

All or Nothing thinking - also known as Black and White thinking - is a distorted pattern of thought that has us relating our experiences to the outermost extremes of possibility without recognising anything in between. For example:

  • I am excellent at this” , “I’m terrible at this”,

  • “We always get on brilliantly” , “She never wants to see me”

  • “I am a fabulous parent” ,“My parenting approach is damaging my kids irreversibly”

  • “This new exercise is going to change my world”, “It’s not working, I quit!”

Essentially All or Nothing thinking tells us: “If I am not perfect then I am a failure”.

The language of All or Nothing thinking is like: “Always, Never, Safe, Dangerous, Pass, Fail, Good, Bad, Yes, No, Can, Can’t”. In day to day scenarios most of us subconsciously find the range between the extremes. However when faced with challenges, difficult decisions or things that frighten us - our brains can click into All or Nothing mode. The shades of grey vanish and we read our experience as Black or White, with nothing in between. This can weaken our ability to grow, develop and move forward in a satisfactory way.

Psychiatrist David D Burns, an expert on behavioural science and cognitive distortion, wrote: "All or Nothing thinking: You see things in black-or-white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure. When a young woman on a diet ate a spoonful of ice cream, she told herself, “I’ve blown my diet completely.” This thought upset her so much that she gobbled down an entire quart of ice cream!” Burns D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook

My experience of All or Nothing thinking

All or Nothing thinking has certainly stopped me from trying new things in the past - in business and in my personal life. It has held me back from stepping outside my comfort zone for fear of exposure or failure. It has prevented me from seeing the range of options available to me to move forward. Now that I recognise when my own All or Nothing thinking is rearing its ugly head I can work on changing my inner dialogue and my perceptions of the situation. This has really helped me unlock some blockages and move forward.

When I first set up my business I experienced extreme highs and lows around gaining new clients. I felt elated when I got a new client, and then conversely utterly deflated when the next potential client doesn’t transpire - my self talk in both scenarios telling me about the extremes of my capabilities. Having recognised that this black and white thinking was not healthy to me or the development of my business, I started taking time to reflect on my successes with a more level head. What is it about my approach that has attracted that client? What is it about them that was drawn to me? Which bits of my messages are resonating with them? How did they find me? Reflecting on my successes gives me the confidence for the same reflection when things don’t go so well. Having learnt from my achievements I feel more equipped to face and learn from my mistakes - and push myself further, driving me to continuously adapt and change my approach in response to what is and isn’t working.

Does this resonate with you? Do you recognise your own All or Nothing thinking?

What would it mean to you if you could recognise the spectrum of possibility between the outer extremes? Could this give you a more balanced, consistent outlook on your experiences with less peaks and troughs to get anxious about? What if you could see alternative possibilities to your chosen course of action or feeling? Maybe this would open the way for learning, reflection and moving forward in a more stable and consistent manner?

Here are some steps to confronting All or Nothing thinking:

  • Recognise and celebrate your strengths rather than focusing on your faults.

  • Understand and accept that things do sometimes go wrong and setbacks happen, rather than dwelling on negative thoughts about your capabilities.

  • Look for the learnings and positives in any situation and recognise that your experience is on a scale. It is not Yes or No, Right or Wrong, Pass or Fail. Find the shades of grey!

  • Notice when you are using language such as “Never” “Nothing” “Always” "Can't" and ask yourself if in between the black and the white there is actually a rainbow.