NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Overcoming "All or Nothing" Thinking

When you engage in all or nothing thinking, you're limiting your possibilities and, possibly, the possibilities of those around you.  Sometimes, referred to as "black and white" thinking, when you engage in all of nothing thinking, you leave out a lot of the "grey" area.  And, let's face it, most of life falls in that "grey" zone.

Overcoming "All or Nothing" Thinking

All or nothing thinking is known as a cognitive distortion because it represents a distortion in the way you think either about yourself, someone else or a situation.

Developing Awareness About How You Think and Approach Life
In order to make any changes, first, you need to be aware of your particular pattern of thinking.

How can you recognize if you're engaging in all or nothing thinking?

Here are some examples:
"Nothing ever goes right for me."
"I'm a total loser."
"I'm always wrong."
"What's the use of even trying?  Life is always so hard."
"You never listen to me."

How Does All or Nothing Thinking Affect You?
As I mentioned earlier, engaging in all or nothing thinking limits your options to either "yes" or "no" or "always" and "never."  While there are times in life when you're clear that your response is an absolute like "yes," "no," "always," or "never," if this is your pattern most of the time, then you're dealing with a cognitive distortion in your views.

The following vignette is a fictionalized scenario where a person engages in nothing thinking:

Ed, who was in his late 20s, had low self confidence.  It was hard for him to try anything new because he had so many self doubts.  It took a lot for him to take risks, whether they were  risks in his personal life or in his career.  He had to work hard to push aside his negative thoughts about himself in order for him to make a move.

When he met Karen at a party, he really wanted to get to know her.  He hesitated to ask her for her telephone number because he assumed that she would reject him.  He thought: "She'd never be interested in me" and "I'm such a loser."  He had to really summon his courage to ask her for her telephone number so he could ask her out on a date.  Ed was shocked when Karen smiled and gave him her number.

A couple of days later, Ed began dialing Karen's number, but he kept hanging up before the phone rang.  His fear of rejection escalated as his negative thoughts almost got the best of him: "She probably gave me the number because she felt too uncomfortable to say no, but she'll never go out with me."

Once again, Ed pushed aside his negative thoughts and redialed.  When he got Karen's voicemail, he almost hung up but, despite his fear, he left a message.

When a day passed and Karen didn't call back, Ed berated himself, telling himself, "You see?  She's not interested.  You're a loser."

Overcoming All or Nothing Thinking

Then, Karen called Ed the following day, telling him that she was having problems with her phone and she just got his message.  She also told him that she would love to go out with him, which surprised and delighted Ed.

Overcoming All or Nothing Thinking
He felt good for a few minutes, and then his self doubt crept in again and he felt sure that Karen wasn't going to enjoy being with him.

Overcoming All or Nothing Thinking
If you recognize yourself as engaging in all or nothing thinking, you can practice trying to reframe situations for yourself.

For instance, in the vignette above, Ed was certain that Karen didn't call back on the same day because she wasn't interested in him.  He never considered other possibilities, including that there were problems with Karen's phone.

If you see yourself as having a similar pattern, you can begin by challenging yourself in every day situations by coming up with other possibilities.

At first, you might not believe that there could be any other possibilities, except for the negative thoughts you're having.  But just practice.  If nothing else, it will help you to develop a greater awareness of how often you engage in all or nothing thinking.

In the above vignette, even if Karen didn't return Ed's phone call, there could be lots of other reasons:  Maybe she was sick.  Maybe she liked Ed, but she was too shy to call him back.  And so on.

Often, it's easier to see other people's distorted thinking.  If you happen to notice other people engaging in all or nothing thinking, you could challenge their assumptions in your own mind and come up with different options.

Getting Help in Therapy
Often, people who are depressed or anxious engage in all or nothing thinking, feeling they have few options.  

If you think you're anxious or depressed, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional so you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist. 

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.