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All Or Nothing Thinking – What It Is and What To Do About It

Whether you’ve heard this term of not, you’ve likely experienced it at some point in your life. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) there are a number of common thought patterns called cognitive distortions that have been named using terms such as All or Nothing Thinking, Mind Reading and Mental Filtering (see PDF list here). This naming can sometimes be helpful in identifying when we’re falling into the trap of setting unrealistic expectations, making assumptions, discounting important information or using stereotypes. All Or Nothing thinking is an example of this. We know this is happening when we find ourselves using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’. I often see this impacting people’s ability to set realistic goals, which makes the goals more difficult to meet and follow through on. I often have clients express to me that they’ve tried multiple times to get into healthy eating habits or regular exercise. However, the expectations might not be supportive in reaching these goals. For example, I might set the goal of going for a walk every day (this would be an example of the ‘all’ part of the equation). However, when I miss the walk on the fourth day, I no longer pursue this goal (this is the ‘nothing’ part of the equation). I end up feeling defeated and beat myself up over 'never' being able to follow through on my goals. This makes it harder to keep going with the goal. This also means that if I can’t do all of the goal, activity or task, I will do none of the goal, activity or task. We can also relate this in some ways to perfectionistic thinking, which I touched in my last blog post. If I can’t do something perfectly, I’m not going to do it at all. Or, I will procrastinate doing the task because I do not believe my completed product will meet my or others’ expectations.

When I’m working on this with clients, we often focus on developing more flexible ways of thinking. For example, what if I tried going for a walk every other day, and allowed the length of the walks to vary depending on my time availability and energy levels? What if doing part of a task felt better than doing none of it? Really emphasizing how it feels to do something in part rather than no part of it can challenge this type of thinking. Doing part of something when you're not able to do all of it can help you to feel more confident in your ability to follow through on things that are important to you, reduce procrastination and leave space to be kinder to yourself when things don’t go as planned.

As always, I’m here to offer support should you wish to spend some time focusing on setting up helpful and supportive habits and strategies so that things don’t feel so overwhelming. I can be reached at I look forward to connecting.

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