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All-or-Nothing Thinking

Overcome This Common Cognitive Distortion

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Updated October 11, 2011

Learn about all-or-nothing thinking and ways to overcome this cognitive distortion.

Definition

All-or-nothing thinking is one of many negative thought processes, known as cognitive distortions, that are common among people with anxiety and depression. When thinking on all-or-nothing terms, a person splits their views into extremes. Everything -- from the person's view of themsevles and to their life experiences -- are divided into black-or-white terms. This leaves room for little, if any, gray area in between.

All-or-nothing thinking often involves using absolute terms, such as never or every. This type of faulty thinking can also include an inability to see the alternatives in a situation or solutions to a problem. For people with anxiety or depression, this often means only seeing the downside to any given situation. People who fall victim to all-or-nothing thinking believe that they are either successful or complete failures in life.

People with panic disorder are often susceptible to this type of thinking. A person who has frequent panic attacks may view themselves as unworthy or inadequate because of their condition. And, they may overlook how valuable they are in other roles, such as a friend, employee, or parent.  

Here are several examples of all-or-nothing thinking. Notice if you recognize your own way of thinking in these examples. Find out how to reframe and overcome this common cognitive distortion.  

Examples

Roger recently decided to face his anxiety and ask a woman out on a date. He left a her a message on her voicemail. A few days went by and Roger didn’t hear back from her. He begins to think, “I am a total loser with nothing to offer,” “No one wants to go out with me,” and “I will never find the right person, so why bother.” Roger starts to feel nervous and upset as he considers a future alone.

Elaine was first diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia about seven years ago. Since then, she has sought out psychotherapy, regularly takes her prescribed antidepressant, and frequently practices her self-care for panic disorder. Elaine’s symptoms have greatly improved and she feels ready to go to a concert with a friend, a situation that has caused her fearful avoidance in the past.

When Elaine arrives at the concert, she begins to notice herself expereincing physical symptoms of panic and anxiety. She tries a deep breathing technique, but still has a panic attack. Elaine leaves the concert early, telling herself that she will “never overcome her condition” and that she “lets her nervousness ruin every situation.”     

Rethink It

Rather than finding the middle ground in his scenario, Roger is thinking in extremes. He can replace his negative self-defeating thoughts with more realistic ones. Roger could consider the possibility that the woman didn’t get his message or is out-of-town. Even if she forgot about the message or decided to ignore it, Roger can choose to think that he is still a worthwhile person. He can remind himself that this particular person may just not have been right for him.

Elaine can also chose to value herself, despite having a struggle with panic disorder. Instead of thinking in absolute terms, she can recognize that despite this setback, she has actually had many successes in coping with panic disorder. She can let go of the word never and begin to consider that she has actually been successfully living with panic disorder. Elaine can also re-evaluate her statement about how she lets her anxiety “ruin every situation” and contemplate all of the time that she has actually triumphed in spite of having overwheliming feelings of anxiety.  

To correct you all-or-nothing thinking, try to avoid unconditional terms, such as nothing or never. Notice when you are thinking in black-or-white extremes and ask yourself if there is a possibility for any gray area. When you can only see one side of any situation, it can help to seek out the support of trusted friends or family. A support network may be able to assist you in finding solutions and thinking beyond absolute terms.  

Sources:

Burns, D. D. “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,” Avon Books: New York, 1999.

Burns, D.D. “When Panic Attacks: The New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life” Broadway Books: New York, 2006.

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