All Or Nothing Thinking

Why Giving Up All or Nothing Thinking Can Help Alleviate Depression


6 monotone crayons - white, gray, and black

The bowl of soup smashes on the kitchen floor as it accidentally slips from your grasp and you find yourself thinking "I can never do anything right." If you've read up on cognitive distortions, you already know this kind of thinking is the kind of black and white mentality that only lets you think in absolutes. There is no room for gray in the all or nothing crayon box. If this kind of extreme response is an all-too familiar pattern in everyday life, then you are suffering from all or nothing thinking.


All or nothing thinking evolved to keep us safe...


Let's go back about 200,000 years ago to Africa, when the first modern humans appeared. Imagine your ancestors out there just trying to survive. They had to get food for their families and fend off danger. Sometimes that danger came in the form of wild predatory animals.

If a saber-toothed tiger came after your ancestor, he had a choice to make. He could either fight or run. Enter the fight or flight response, a natural emotional response which evolved to help our ancestors to make split-second decisions in order to save their own lives. With a stressor like a hungry tiger, no wonder it was all or nothing back in those days.


An all or nothing mentality allowed your ancestors to engage in fight or flight...

As a child abuse survivor, it's also the response you generated each time you experienced an act of child abuse at the hands of your abuser. Your body pumped out adrenalin and a hormone associated with stress known as cortisol in order to prepare you to respond to danger the same way your ancestors had to all those years ago. It was as if that same saber-toothed tiger faced by your ancestor was coming after you.


But (hopefully) nobody's abusing you today and there are no saber-toothed tigers in your neighborhood...

So what triggers the all or nothing response? It's anything that mentally (either consciously or unconsciously) reminds you of past child abuse.

For instance, let's say your father used to verbally abuse you by yelling uncontrollably and telling you how bad you were. You always remember feeling really bad when this happened. Now years later as an adult, you find that when your boss starts yelling at you for poor work performance, you find yourself feeling the same way and thinking "I can never do anything right."

That's a classic all or nothing thinking response. It's 100% good or 100% bad. There's no in-between.


But it's the extremes that cause depression....

Our thoughts influence the way we feel. It then follows that if we think in extremes, our emotions will tend to follow suit as well. The psychological research shows that it's experiencing extreme emotions (whether they are positive or negative) that makes people more susceptible to depression. In other words, engaging in all or nothing thinking can make you more prone to depression.


You can give up all or nothing thinking by:

  1. Becoming aware that you're doing it. Words like "never", "always", "perfect", "impossible", and "terrible." For instance, if you say something like "I can never do anything right" after making a mistake, that's something to be aware of.
  2. Trying some therapy. If you're an abuse survivor, you should aim for getting as much emotional support as possible, preferably in the form of a therapist. Oftentimes, child abuse survivors suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which can make it hard to think in a calm and balanced manner.
  3. Arguing with yourself. When you catch yourself saying something like "I can never do anything right," try coming up with examples of when you have done something right. For instance, did you remember to take out the trash once this week? Then you've done something right and the above statement can't possibly be true.


I know, I know. Maybe you've tried giving this up before and it hasn't worked.

There's a simple reason. It's because you haven't made it a habit. To make something a habit, you should keep at it for at least 30 days. Then it starts to become automatic. That's why it's important when you're first starting out to enlist the help of someone supportive, such as a therapist. They can help reinforce your commitment to giving up your old patterns of thinking.


Give up the extremes and aim for balance...

The lesson here is to catch yourself when you're thinking in extremes. A situation typically isn't all bad. A bowl of soup you dropped on your kitchen floor is one accident and doesn't mean you can't do anything right ever again. One bad performance at work doesn't mean you can't do a good job overall. You're a human being entitled to your mistakes.

Shoot for calm and balanced thoughts to find real peace in your life. That's how giving up all or nothing thinking will help you with depression.


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