8 Ways to Catch All-Or-Nothing Thinking

Subtle, common words can get us stuck in mental traps.

Posted Dec 30, 2018

Decades of psychological research has identified dysfunctional patterns in thinking that are associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. One of those types of thinking is something I work frequently with my clients on eradicating: all-or-nothing thinking. Also called black-or-white thinking or dichotomous thinking, the basic idea is that instead of being able accurately to assess a situation (especially a somewhat negative one), a person sees things in terms that are much more stark. For instance, things don't feel just just partially damaged — they are devastated altogether. A day isn't just going fairly poorly — it's the worst day ever. It's not that a few people are being difficult — it's that everyone is.

Of course, a little exaggeration every once in a while is likely not going to be psychologically damaging, and most of us have shortcuts in our speech that overgeneralize for simplicity's sake. But the real harm comes when all-or-nothing thinking becomes chronic and starts to give shape to the way we process our environment: We begin to see the world in oversimplified and often negative terms. This can, in turn, make us feel helpless and pessimistic about ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. Want to see if you are engaging in this type of thinking? Start with noticing how you use the following words.

"Always"

One of the most common words of all-or-nothing thinking, "always" is often used in a negative way, to take one or a few specific instances and generalize to condemn the character of a person or the nature of our experiences. It is often combined with a generalization about someone else's behavior or personality, like "You're always late," "You always do that," or "I always get taken advantage of." Certainly, there may be many times when "always" feels accurate. But other times, it keeps you in a cycle of believing that things can't get better, or it prevents you from extending some patience and understanding to someone who has slipped up.

"Never"

The underside of "always," "never" can do equal damage when it is used to get rid of hope, flexibility, or the benefit of the doubt. There aren't that many times where "never" is true in interpersonal relations, and it's rarely helpful to view things in these terms. Similarly, "never" can often be turned inward in negative ways, like "I never catch a break," "I never know what to say at parties," or "I never do well in presentations." Moreover, it can be used as a way of remaining stuck in a negative vision of the future, like  "I'll never amount to anything," or "Things will never get better."

"Everything"

"Everything" is often unhelpful when it is used to make a mountain out of a molehill, to go from something specific that happened to making a global generalization. It can be so tempting to say that "everything" is going wrong during a series of vacation mishaps, for instance, and if it's able to be shaken off soon with a laugh, then that's not so dysfunctional. But when it feels like "everything" is going wrong, and that itself becomes a mindset that prohibits you from seeing what is going right, the it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as you'll see things as going wrong that really weren't so bad — preventing you from bothering to troubleshoot them.

"Totally"

A word that has been highly popular from the Valley-Girl slang days of the 1980s and is often used in positive ways ("Totally rad, dude!"), it just as frequently seems to be part of all-or-nothing thinking in a negative direction: "This job totally stinks"; "Something's totally wrong with her"; "My house is a total pigsty." When you go from part to whole so quickly and inaccurately, you blind yourself from seeing the potential positives of a situation or a person, putting on filters that keep out the good in order to align with your already established perspective that recognizes the bad — which keeps you stuck.

"Ruined"

Sure, some things in life get completely ruined: your phone when it goes through the washing machine, a house of cards when it's knocked over. But the word "ruined" is also often used to catastrophize during periods of blame or conflict. Have you ever accused your partner or children of "ruining" a special event, or thought when you had a setback on a personal project you were working toward that it was now all "ruined"? It may be helpful in those situations to reframe the experience. Is the struggle part of growth that will pay off later? Are there aspects of the situation that can be salvaged in a positive way? Has a new path been illuminated that will help you learn something, or resolve once and for all a conflict that was always hiding under the surface? If so, then nothing's truly ruined. 

"Can't"

Just like with the word "ruined," there are indeed times when "can't" makes sense. But there are lots of other times when it is used in an overgeneralizing way that only compounds feelings of learned helplessness and hopelessness, and serves to perpetuate a pattern of self-sabotage: "This can't be fixed"; "I can't do anything right"; "I can't handle this." Pay attention to how you use this word in your daily life. As much as it has become something of a self-help cliche to banish "can't" from your vocabulary, is it possible that you really are using this word in ways that get you into a rut of negative thinking? Is it intruding upon a realistic assessment of your abilities?

"Everyone" or "No one"

It seems that in this highly charged political environment, an "us versus them" mentality has taken hold. Anger has risen, and stereotyping of other groups is all too common — which, when those two combine forces, can lead to hate. One of the mechanisms of prejudice is to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people that are not accurate. But people in the throes of negative thinking tend to do it about even larger groups, especially if they use the words "everyone" or "no one" a little too much. Do you generalize, especially negatively, to assume that "everyone" doesn't use their turn signal anymore, or "no one" else cares about something that's important to you? What about the sweeping conclusions you might draw when it feels like you against the world, because you have been hurt or betrayed? Writing off the rest of humanity often makes you feel worse — and paralyzes you from moving forward.

"Anymore"

As with the other words, there are times when this word can be used in positive ways: Deciding to stop bad habits and letting go of regrets come to mind. But other times, it's used to bemoan things that have seemingly changed and represents a cognitive distortion that can bring you down. Common in this category are thoughts like "People just aren't as nice anymore," or "I'm not good at X anymore." To assume that something positive can't happen anymore, or that things have changed for the worse, denies you the opportunity to have hope for the future.

What kind of patterns do you notice in your thinking? Let me know in the comments! And if you're looking to work more on negative thought patterns, sign up for my free "Detox Your Thoughts" email challenge!

Photo by Ana Tavares on Unsplash