How to Change ‘All or Nothing’ Thinking

Letting go of the perfectionism trap

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If you are a recovering perfectionist like I am, you probably recognize the pattern of all or nothing thinking. 

Statements like these more than likely sound familiar: “My entire diet is ruined because I ate that dessert,” or “If I don’t get this promotion then I wasted the past 10 years in this job.”

Don’t get me wrong. There will be negative feelings associated with not getting a job or splurging when you have been working hard to get that promotion or maintain a healthier diet. It is typical to feel disappointment when things do not go the way you want.

However, it migrates into a more distorted way of thinking when you only focus on the negative and forget everything else positive in your life. 

This pattern of all of nothing thinking tends to lead to feelings of anxiety, anger and self-doubt that are detrimental to your overall well-being.

Try these tips for how to change all or nothing thinking. Just realize that while they may seem simple, that does not always mean easy. 

Be sure to give yourself plenty of grace as you try to combat the habit of all or nothing thinking.

Separate self-worth from performance

Perfectionists tend to judge their worth on how well they perform (ask me how I know). 

When I became a mother, my identity became enmeshed with my children and their behavior. 

On the surface, I knew this did not make much sense. But it was very real nonetheless. 

I would judge myself on my perceived successes and failures as a parent, especially when I was a new mother. 

I would think things like, “My child needs to be on his best behavior at this birthday party or everyone will know I’m a terrible mom.”

Now I realize just how much I set myself up to feel like a terrible failure since (in this situation) my worth was dependent on how my child behaved at one party.  

There are many other ways that we set our self-worth up to depend on a single performance. Our identity is often related to how well we perform in our job or on a test.

In all of these examples, we are destined to always feel terribly since performance will always change. Our self-worth will be in a constant state of flux.

Instead of all or nothing thinking, try to focus on core values and positive qualities. These are things that are firmly rooted within and not dependent on performance.

Ground yourself in the knowledge that you are more than how you (or anyone else) performs in any one situation.

Know your strengths and positive character traits and remind yourself of them often, but especially when you find yourself locked in an all or nothing thinking pattern. 

Use the word “and” instead of “or”

Another trap of all or nothing thinking is to juxtapose two opposing possibilities to the elimination of everything else. For instance, you might judge your days as either all good or all bad.

In this case, consider reviewing specific parts of your day. There may have been some terrible things that happened AND you also might have gotten a lot of work done. 

Change your mindset by replacing the word “or” with the word “and” when you are struggling with all or nothing thinking.

The result of expanding your all or nothing thinking to include other details is that you acknowledge that nothing is all good or all bad 100% of the time. It allows you to feel much better about yourself and your situation.

Practice gratitude and focus on the positive

All or nothing thinking tends to align with seeing the glass half empty. When we are in the habit of practicing gratitude, we can more easily see that things are not ALL bad.

Gratitude is an effective way to combat the negativity of all or nothing thinking that tells us that if we cannot do something perfectly, then we should not even try. 

Being thankful for things, even stumbles and mishaps that help us grow, gives us permission to move forward.

It is usually much easier to practice being grateful for our mistakes once we are beyond them and we can view them in hindsight as opportunities or growth. 

However, if we practice gratitude regularly, we can defeat all or nothing thinking in the moment by perceiving the gray area in between as potential blessings.

The first step towards changing all or nothing thinking is becoming aware of it. When you sense yourself catastrophizing events in your thoughts, take a pause and realize that you are viewing your situation in black and white terms. 

Acknowledge that the reality is somewhere in the middle gray area and remind yourself of these three tips to change your all or nothing thinking.

After all, when you learn how to move your thoughts towards the center rather than focusing on extremes, you will start to feel that you have more freedom. 

You will begin to appreciate the richness of life and the possibilities that are available to you. 

By remaining open to see the positive side of things, you will be better able to deal with the unexpected things that will arise.

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