You’re not a computer. After all, if you were, you’d have less back pain and wouldn’t care which IPAs your local spot has on draft. Yet despite your obvious humanity, you tend to think in binary when you engage in moments of reflection. Often, there are two grades in your self-assessment: success or failure and nuance or degrees of achievement between the two.
When you view an outcome as either success or failure you’re guilty of what’s known as “all-or-nothing thinking.” This is unhelpful for a number of reasons and needs to be corrected. Binary code is great for computation, but it’s crippling for self-assessment and a hindrance to decision-making. It limits your ability to perceive reality. You only see black and white in a world teeming with varying shades of gray. Worst of all, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
“It can be very self-limiting and become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says family and marriage therapist Jessica Reynoso. “It may become a positive feedback loop of anxiety and sense of incompetence.”
Why All-Or-Nothing Thinking Is So Harmful
“All-or-nothing thinking,” per Reynoso, often stems from a fear of failure or disappointing others that has its roots in childhood. Over time, that worry grows into a thought pattern that filters our perception of ourselves and the world. It’s a cognitive distortion, a glitch in our brain’s processing that prevents us from correctly observing reality.
Therapist Matthew Brace notes that when people give voice to the criticism, they often use absolutes in their language. They say things like “you never follow through with things” or “you always seem to mess up.” Hearing words that are considered absolutes can have an impact on people as they can start to internalize things in those terms, as arguments tend to leave out exceptions.
“Cognitive distortions or beliefs people have about themselves can make sense in the context of their family dynamics and ways in which their family communicated,” Brace says.
Psychologist Dr. Raffaello Antonino attributes all-or-nothing thinking to our brain’s natural drive to organize information with simple labels for quick retrieval. “Humans have a tendency to think in categories,” he says. “We like to come up with nice and concise ways to summarize our experience of the world.”
Sorting experiences into neat little boxes probably helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors avoid many threats but in our current evolutionary stage, outcomes for problems are much more varied and complex. In the grand majority of challenges that we face in our lives, missing the mark doesn’t spell total doom. If you fall short in something, you can likely find at least a modicum of value in the experience because of course you can.
As career coach David Patterson-Cole observes, even the dog-eat-dog job market offers a wide array of outcomes.
“Failures almost never define our lives,” he says. “In my industry, an interview that doesn't lead to a job offer is never a loss. You learned more about the company, gained further experience interviewing, networked with staff, and found some new advice on improving your resume or job-hunting skills. You may get a call back from the company when a new position opens up — it happens more than you think.”
All-or-nothing thinking makes it harder to seize those opportunities to find bright sides to setbacks. You only see wins and losses and nothing in between.
“You’re either the best or the worst person on the planet,” Antonino says. “You’re either best friends with someone or worst enemies.” Suppose something you work on isn’t totally perfect in every way. In that case, it’s a failure, setting up a paralyzing, self-defeating perfectionism that heightens stress and triggers anxiety or anger, preventing you from doing your best or meeting deadlines.
“It can drive anxiety by making you check a work document hundreds of times for mistakes,’” Antonio says.
Laura Silverstein, couples therapist and author of Love Is an Action Verb, says that approaching the world in absolutes comes at a cost. “You miss an opportunity for growth,” she says. “Success comes from expanding your thinking beyond right and wrong.”
How to Break the Cycle
All-or-nothing thinking is an easy trap to fall into. But it can also be simple to start to escape.
Educational psychologist and family therapist Marisa Cohen says that acknowledging that you are engaging in this type of thinking can be a helpful first step.
“Just the awareness that this distortion is in place can enable you to see that it is affecting your judgment,” she says, adding that saying out loud, ‘I am engaging in all-or-nothing thinking,’ can help you break the pattern.
Cultivating an awareness that unhealthy thinking pattern exists can pull you out of a spiraling moment of anxiety. The next step, which may require help from a mental health professional, is to learn to see the real world without the distortion of an all-or-nothing filter through calming thought exercises, breathing, and reflection.
“One of the things we work on in therapy to combat this all-or-nothing thinking is to create a possibility of more than just success or failure, sometimes working to expand the definition of success,” Reynoso says.
At the end of the day, you might fail in something but that certainly doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Life isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition; nothing good comes out of treating it like one.