In addressing our thought, feeling, behavior connection, one of the greatest cognitive distortions (thoughts) that leads to emotional or mental stress, anxiety, or depression is that of all or nothing (or black and white) thinking. This distortion is particularly prevalent with each of us, and if you pause to listen to those around you, you will hear this distortion an unbelievable amount of times. There are very few things that are truly black and white in life (although we attempt to make a lot of things this way that aren’t really that way), so when we categorize things into “either this or that” with no middle ground, we set ourselves (or others) up for failure or make something seemingly impossible. If our performance (or others performance) falls short of perfect, then it’s a total failure. This distortion is EXTREME, is not accurate in portraying reality, and causes a great deal of stress and frustration with ourselves and our relationships.
- All or nothing examples: Always, never, everyone, no one, all the time, none of the time, either this or that, absolute words, completely, absolutely, ruined, impossible, catastrophizing words
- Shades of gray examples: sometimes, often, frequently, much of the time, many, few, and middle of the ground types of words.
- “I’m always making a mess of everything” becomes “I make mistakes sometimes but I do get it right frequently as well”. (this is balanced and reality)
- “everyone has great friends but me” becomes “it may seem like many others have great friends but I can only see from the outside” (unless you’ve surveyed EVERYONE, you cannot make this statement)
- “I’m a complete failure at math” becomes “Math is not a strong subject for me and I struggle with it. However, I am strong in many other areas, and my lack of abilities in math doesn’t define me”. (We are not a complete failure because we struggle in a specific area).
The more our thinking is polarized and extreme, the more our mood gets depressed and/or our anxiety increases. All or nothing thinking is not balanced, is not very healthy, and is not accurate according to reality. This type of distortion is often irrational, and serves to rile us up more than anything else.
I’ll be honest. Having heard this type of thought pattern from most people around me from the time I first started hearing, this has been a part of my thought pattern (that’s how social modeling works!). Because of this, it is really difficult for me, and for each of my clients I’ve seen thus far, and I’m guessing for you as well, to start to change this. It is SO prevalent in our society, and it is very easy to fall into this trap. However, to be happy, we need to decrease the amount of black and white words we used, and take a more balanced “shades of gray” approach to things. The shades of gray is where the beauty, creativity, fun, and reality of life is. Without the shades of gray it’s a confusing, harsh, and unrealistic world.
To work on changing this type of thinking, gain awareness of the warning words as you use them. Challenge these and change them. Practice changing them through the Thought Record or the REBT self help form. And remember- you don’t have to do this alone! Recruit your family, friends, and co-workers to join in so you can all catch each other and encourage one another as you try to get your language and thought patterns to a healthier place!
Now it’s your turn to share! What makes it so easy to use all or nothing thinking? How might an aspect of your life change if you decreased your usage of black and white thinking?