All-or-nothing thinking is known as a “cognitive distortion”, an automatic thought that serves as
a catalyst for negative thought processes. These are common among individuals who struggle
with anxiety and depression.
What is All-or-Nothing Thinking?
All-Or-Nothing thinking can look like splitting your views into extremes or include absolutes
such as “never” or “forever”. We often split our life experiences into “black or white” thought
processes and it leaves little room for grey area. This thought process can keep us from seeing
alternatives in a situation or solutions to a problem. For those who struggle with anxiety or
depression, all-or-nothing thinking can mean only seeing the downside to a given situation. It
may reinforce beliefs about ourselves of either being a complete “failure” or success in life.
Examples of All-Or-Nothing Thinking
Jamie has decided to work through his anxiety and ask a woman out on a date. He sends her a
text message and after a few days go by, he has been left with no response.
Jamie, if thinking in terms of all-or-nothing, may think “I am such a loser with nothing to offer
and I will never find the right person, so why bother?” This may lead to anxiety and upset as he
thinks about being “alone forever”.
When Sarah arrives at a concert, she experiences symptoms of anxiety and panic. She tries an
emotion regulation strategy but still experiences a panic attack. Sarah ends up leaving the concert
and tells herself that she will never overcome her anxiety and she lets her anxiety ruin every
In both of these situations, these individuals are perceiving the situation in absolute terms. By
perceiving a situation in absolute terms, it may affect their confidence in engaging with others or
managing mental health symptoms.
Navigating All-Or-Nothing Thinking
One way to help alleviate self-defeating thoughts is navigating situations with more realistic
ones. This may involve considering alternatives or alternative explanations.
This is a strategy that helps shift how we think about a situation which can influence how we
then feel and behave. Start identifying when you engage in all-or-nothing thinking. After
identifying the thought, challenge them. Are they true? Are there other explanations? What
would it mean if the original thought were not true?
Actively challenging your negative thoughts takes practice and persistence. Talk to yourself the
same way you would talk to a friend! Usually, we are much kinder and compassionate when
offering advice to a friend than we are with ourselves.