All or nothing thinking

Most things in the world around you are not “extreme”. There is a good chance that the coffee or tea that you drink at the train station every day doesn’t taste “extremely good” or “extremely bad”. Rather, it is more likely to taste somewhere in between the two extremes. Similarly, your colleagues in the office are probably not “extremely friendly” or “extremely unfriendly”, but more likely to be somewhere in between.

Unfortunately, your mind can have the tendency to only think in extremes (e.g. that coffee is extremely good, my colleagues are extremely bad etc), rather than seeing things in a more realistic “in-between way”. Psychologists have named this toxic thinking, where one’s mind thinks in extremes, as “all or nothing” thinking.

The short examples below of “all or nothing” thinking will show you how it can cause harm.

Example 1

Imagine that you have a good friend called Sally. She has been a true friend to you for many years, sharing your happiness and troubles. Sally has always gone out of her way to be helpful to you whenever you were in need.

Let us now imagine that today is your birthday and that Sally, perhaps because she was busy, forgot to wish you. Now let us suppose that your mind does “all or nothing” thinking. Your mind will make you think, “Sally is a really terrible person who does not care about me at all. How could she forget my birthday, when she knows I like people to wish me? She is completely useless, etc.” In this scenario, “all or nothing” thinking is making you think only in extremes. You ignore all the good that Sally has done over the years, and instead, let this one error made by her, make her “all bad”.

In reality, while it was “bad” for Sally to have forgotten your birthday, it was only one “bad” thing among the many more “good” things she has done for you over the years. So instead of seeing Sally as “completely bad”, a better way would be to see her as being “mostly good” and only “slightly bad”. As you have seen in this example, “all or nothing” thinking can make one judge people unfairly.

Example 2

Nick goes to a restaurant and has a three-course meal. The starters taste fantastic, the main course is equally delicious, and even the dessert is super good. Then at the end, Nick orders a coffee. The waiter brings the coffee and as a special treat, also brings a biscuit to go with it. Nick finds the coffee to be excellent, but unfortunately discovers that the biscuit is a little spoiled.

At this point, let’s imagine that Nick’s mind does “all or nothing” thinking. This makes him focus only on the spoilt biscuit and completely forget that the other parts of the meal were fantastic. Nick complains about the biscuit for the rest of the evening, telling everyone how the meal was completely terrible.

In this example, you can see how, because of “all or nothing” thinking, the restaurant was not judged fairly. This is not to say that the spoilt biscuit should have been ignored. Rather, it is about putting things in the correct perspective.

As you have seen in the above examples, the “all or nothing” type of toxic thinking can make one make incorrect judgments. When you assess a person or situation, take a step back and check if you are truly seeing things in a “balanced way”, which means seeing both the good and the bad in everything.