All or Nothing Thinking. Let’s be Frank and Confront It

I love a good Frank Sinatra song. They will encompass just about any emotion or situation in your daily life, and “All or Nothing at All” came to mind when I considered writing this article.

But Frankly, that’s not what brought me to this subject (but, please enjoy the song and then come back).

It is Cognitive Distortion?

An illustration of the power of the brain

I struggled with All or Nothing Thinking when I was a young adult, and to this day, I still find myself tempted to fall back into this black and white way of thinking.

“All or Nothing Thinking” is actually a cognitive distortion. There are at least 15 cognitive distortions.

Cognitive: of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering).

Distortion: the act of twisting or altering something out of its actual, natural, or original state. Ex. “A distortion of the facts.”

So, a problem with cognitive distortion would mean you are twisting or altering a conscious intellectual thought. Your reasoning is being distorted.

You are seeing the world in black and white, with no subtle tones of gray. You will self-talk with phrases like:

“I’m always blowing it!”

“You are always doing that.”

“I’ll never get this right.”

“I can’t do this because I never complete anything!”

It is very self-defeating. It’s when one hitch in a plan makes EVERYTHING get unraveled.

This is common with perfectionist thinking: “I didn’t get 100% – I’ve failed!”

It’s distorting one thing and making it encompass everything then and after.

[This can be a sign of anxiety, panic disorders, and depression, or other comorbid factors of mental illness. And so, what I’m writing is a good starting point to think over your own problems with cognitive distortion; but first and foremost, if you feel you are having this problem consistently, and it is affecting your life in a negative way that keeps you from functioning, then please see a professional that can help.]

It’s All in the Words

Scrabble spelling out 'choose your words'

There are subtle words that you can pinpoint to see if you are having problems with this type of thinking. Dr. Andrea Bonior gave a list of the most common words used in Psychology Today, with a more thorough explanation of each word. I’ll list the words from her list here:

  • Always
  • Never
  • Everything
  • Totally
  • Ruined
  • Can’t
  • Every one or No one
  • Anymore

Think over if you use those words either with yourself or with others. Are they used often in your daily life? Stop and think the next time something happens. Are you using these types of words to attribute end results consistently in your life?

Distorted Beginnings

Distorted photo

Remember when I said I struggled with this type of thinking? What happens in childhood can have adverse effects later in life.

When I was possibly eight years old, my mother took my siblings and me to a circus. She was young and had five kids, and so I understand now in retrospect why she would speak in such “all or nothing” thinking terms.

I wanted the show to begin, and so I asked, “When is it going to start? Mom, how long is this? When will it be over?” and various other questions. I was an impatient and inquisitive childlike most children are, but this time it upset her, and she grabbed my hand and said, “You always ruin everything!”

She then led the five of us kids out of the circus and back to our home. My siblings blamed me for us having to leave the circus. I blamed myself. Many years later, I found out it was because of an entirely different reason we left the circus.

That moment affected the remainder of my childhood and teen years, up until I was an adult and began to see who I was more reasonably and clearly. I had thought I was the one who always ruined everything. That was my All or Nothing Thinking for a long time.

But realistically, that makes no sense. How can one person ruin everything all the time?

The Absurdity of All or Nothing Thinking

Man standing near the sea

When you see life in black and white terms, you are going from one extreme to another. You are never seeing life as a balance between sometimes this and sometimes that. It is always this, or never that. It is totally wrong, or ultimately the worst. It is this type of polarized thinking that distorts what the fact is and what is real.

Or, let’s look at racism and bigotry. It’s the “us” and “them” mentality. You find one stereotype and believe it to be the “only” way something is, and therefore “they” are “always” that way.

This polarization is very damaging to a soul in the long run, and it’s very detrimental to your self-image and extremely harmful in how you perceive others.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. wrote on how to expand your thinking out of this rut of All or Nothing thoughts. It’s a process that is used in behavioral therapy.

Goals Obscured

Let’s say you start on a diet and need to eat only 1,000 calories. You see a cookie and suddenly are at 1120. Oh no! You have totally blown your diet! It’s ruined! Oh my gosh, you will be fat forever!

Well, obviously that cookie wasn’t the end of the world. You just need to accept you made a little mistake. Cookies are necessary evils. And so, enjoy and then move on with the diet.

Let’s say you just took a test. You failed by only six points. That doesn’t mean you will never pass the test. It means you missed six points and will just need to work a little harder, study a bit more, and next time, you might not miss six points. It’s not the end of the world.

There is a worksheet on how to crush All or Nothing Thinking that might help you work through these thoughts. I found it on a site that helps people lose weight, My Body Tutor.


Balancing rocks by a waterfall

“To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.” – Confucius

In life, things happen. There is chaotic movement as you walk through life because much of life is out of your control. If something terrible happens and you just sit down and don’t move in fear of another bad thing happening, then life will pass you by.

If your self-talk is, “this always happens to me,” or, “I will never be good enough,” “I’m just a loser,” then you are self-prophesying bad things to happen continually. Or, you just give up and stop moving forward in your life.

Life is to be enjoyed. Life is to be lived. Life is to be balanced.

We must take good things with bad things and accept the eventuality of both.

That’s Life

It is understandable if every so often you feel you have failed at something – that is human, and that is normal. But if you continually see your life in such a definitively positive or definitely negative light, then you have a cognitive distortion in your perception.

I obviously didn’t “always” “ruin” “everything.” That would be absurd. No one, on the other hand, can “always” “ruin” your life, either.

That’s just living life. And so that reminds me of another Frank song.

That’s life, and I hope you can move forward thankful for the blessings, enjoying your friends and family for simply being, and accepting the person you are deep inside.

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Rebecca Temsen

Rebecca Temsen

Rebecca is an author, entrepreneur and most of all a wife and mother of 2. What she enjoys the most is helping normal people reach their full potential. Rebecca uses her ever growing skills in writing to inspire people and not settle for a normal life. As an entrepreneur, she has no shortage of failures and that is why Rebecca is the ideal person to talk about this.

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