All or Nothing Thinking


All or Nothing Thinking

All or Nothing Thinking

‘All or nothing’ thinking is common among people who experience personality disorders (Oshio, 2012, p. 424) and many other mental health problems. There would be no doubt you would have heard somebody say “I have always been terrible at this”, or “I am always right about these types of things” or “I will only drink this brand of coffee”  or “You never do anything nice for me” or “I am a loser.”, or perhaps “This won’t turn out any good, things in my life always go wrong.”

Perhaps you have heard things like this too; “Oh no, X happened so my life is over” or “I just ate a piece of cake, I’ve blown it now, I will never succeed at dieting” or “I made a mistake in this report, I just can’t do this job”. All these statements have a similar theme running through them. Each of these statements are basically ‘all-or-nothing’ statements.

These sweeping generalizations are called selective abstractions. They are a form of cognitive distortion with a theme of extreme position without any other possibilities. Basically, all or nothing thinking is a distortion (of thinking) that tells us that everything this way or that way, and that is it.

People who habitually use terms like these may very well be trapped in all-or-nothing type thinking

  • Always
  • Only
  • Never
  • Constantly

Why does this occur?

There can be several reasons why a person engages in all-or-nothing thinking. One reason is that engaging in this type of thinking is as a defensive mechanism in particular situations.

All-or-nothing thinking is an easy mechanism to use when a person wants to avoid getting at a particular truth. Sometimes it is just easier to create broad and generalised statements. In essence, instead of thinking things through, you take the short cut to generalized extremes.

Also, according to cognitive behavior therapy of Los Angeles (2015) a person may engage in all-or-nothing thinking as a way to ‘fuel emotions such as anxiety, depression, or anger’.  This type of distorted thinking could be a part of a larger mental health issue that needs to be given attention. Psychology Today (2018) indicates that stress or a situation perceived as threatening  may also play a role in why some people resort to all-or-nothing thinking.

What’s the Big Deal?

Is there any real harm of having an all-or-nothing mentality anyway? What if you want to live at the extreme ends of the spectrum? Why is this so bad? Well, there are several reasons why having this unhealthy mindset can be detrimental.

It creates and either or scenario

When you have an all-or-nothing mind-set, it creates scenarios that only have two options. This or that. Every choice, every situation, every condition can only be views one of two ways. When this is a person’s standard operating procedure, they more or less rob themselves of vast and unique choices that could otherwise be available. Even worse, this type of thinking can create an environment in which  a person actually believes that they only have two choices. This can be a devastating mindset. Truly believing that one only has binary options available to themselves can be stifling to one’s creativity, energy, and happiness.

It defines a person too narrowly.

When  a person applies the all-or-nothing mindset, they begin to define who they are in very narrow categories. They make it so that they need to fit themselves into these tight small categories. It is a bit like trying to jam 5 kilograms of stuff into a 2 kilogram bag. It is not meant to fit.

We are much too complex human beings to fit into such small categories.  Allow yourself to flourish and explore all the possibilities of who you are as a person, not just two bland options.

It’s Not Reality

Ultimately an all-or-nothing mentality does not properly reflect reality. Nearly nothing in life is constrained to the extreme of always and never, or perfect and horrible. When a person lives in these extremes, they are creating a distorted view of reality. They are clouding their vision.

People can create a reality in which they are always walking round with a rain cloud over their head. Or where they are wearing those rose-coloured glasses. In either case, they are not getting the clear picture of what the world is actually like.

It is much more constructive to adopt a balanced mindset. Think about the differences between something like “I just ate a piece of cake, I’ve blown it now, I will never succeed at dieting”, versus “yes, I just ate some cake. I know this will not help me, but it is a little set-back I can recover from. I will use this as motivation for not having any cake tomorrow. I can succeed at dieting”.

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Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Los Angeles, (2015). Recognizing cognitive distortions: All-or-nothing thinking. Retrieved February 9, 2019, from


OSHIO, A. (2012). An all-or-nothing thinking turns into darkness: Relations between dichotomous thinking and personality disorders1 An all-or-nothing thinking turns into darkness: Relations between dichotomous thinking and personality disorders. Japanese Psychological Research, 54(4), 424–429.


Psychology Today, (2018). 8 ways to catch all-or-nothing thinking. Retrieved February 9, 2019, from


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