All-or-Nothing Thinking in Addiction
Learning to embrace gray area thoughts
Posted Jun 25, 2019
Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is highly successful in addiction recovery. Developed by Dr. Aaron Beck, it allows people to see the link between how they think, how they feel and how they behave. In addition, this link is not only part of the reason for the addiction, but it is the way to effectively and positively shift the mindset to leading a healthier, sober and clean life.
Most of my clients have some cognitive distortions or thinking errors around themselves and their addiction. One of the most common is a thinking pattern that is called all-or-nothing thinking. It is also sometimes called black-and-white thinking. as there are only two options possible for the thinker, never anything in the middle.
There is also a reinforcing element to this type of thinking. In some ways, it is easier to see life as all one way or all the other, as it limits the need to consider options. For those struggling with addiction, choosing A or B and not having to think about all the rest of the alphabet is much less complicated
Addiction and All-or-Nothing Thinking
The most common sign I see in someone with all or nothing thinking is their choice of language. The most frequent phrases these individuals use in their discussions with me, as well as in their daily interactions with others, are:
· I have never been successful.
· I cannot get clean.
· Everyone is against me.
· No one wants me to succeed.
· I can't make changes.
· I will never be as good as people want me to be.
These are also people who tend to read negatives into every situation, often drawing on the all-or-nothing thinking pattern in ways that are not at all connected to the situation.
For instance, a person with all-or-nothing thinking sees negativity as the only possible outcome in any situation. Let's say Maria texts her friend to go for a coffee. Maria sends the text, and there is no immediate answer. In just a few minutes she starts to have a mental dialogue that includes thoughts of how no one wants to go for coffee with her, no one wants her friendship, and no one cares about helping her in her recovery.
Maria does not consider that the text may have just been overlooked, that Maria may be in a meeting and cannot answer the text, or that perhaps Maria doesn’t have her phone with her.
Overcoming All-or-Nothing Thinking
Identify never, always, cannot and all absolute statements – listen to your thoughts and identify when you are using the all-or-nothing words. When you hear these words in your thoughts, ask yourself if this is really true or is this all-or-nothing thinking.
Be creative – once you that establish you are engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, try to come up with at least two gray-area statements. These cannot include the all-or-nothing words and have to provide an alternative consideration.
It is also important to practice this type of thinking. I do it with one-on-one clients and group activities, but you can also do it with family members and friends who can provide positive solutions and support.