Carrie Myers by Carrie Myers

There’s a paradigm that states, “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” If you tend to use all-or-nothing thinking or other irrational thought patterns, this probably shows up in every area of your life and is often a part of a perfectionist personality. Here are a few examples: 

  • Exercise: If you don’t have time for your full workout, you don’t do any exercise.  

  • Relationships: In relationships, you might be ready to marry the person after one date—or decide after one date that you never want to see that person again. For friendships, you might have one close friend at a time with whom you do everything.  

  • Housework: If you can’t clean the entire house all at once, it doesn’t get done at all.  

  • School: If you don’t have time to sit down and write the paper in one sitting, it doesn’t get done until you have no choice and then find yourself pulling an all-nighter. 

  • Nutrition: You already broke from your dietary goals by having one cookie, so you might as well eat the entire package and abandon your nutrition goals for the rest of the day. 

An all-or-nothing mindset also affects people on a deeper level. As a type of cognitive distortion, people with all-or-nothing mindsets tend to see the world with no gray areas. Things are either right or they’re wrong, and anything less than 100% equals failure. That’s a lot of pressure! 

With all-or-nothing thinking and other cognitive distortions, people use absolutes and extremes, like: 

  • I’m a complete failure... or... My way is always the best way 

  • I can never do anything right... or... If it’s going to get done right, I’m the only one who can do it. 

  • Everyone hates me; no one likes me... or... I don’t have any enemies—everyone loves me.  

A 2018 study published in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that using absolutist words is a marker specific to anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. In this study, researchers state, “Absolutist thinking underlies many of the cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs that are purported to mediate the core affective disorders.... Absolutist thinking has strong empirical links to three distinct mental health groups: suicidal ideation, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorder.” This doesn’t mean that this type of self-talk is always linked to these conditions. After all, we all use this language at times. It’s when it becomes a person’s primary or only way of thinking that things become problematic.  

Stopping the Spiral of All-or-Nothing Thinking 

In one of her Therapy in a Nutshell tutorials, Emma McAdam, MS, makes the following suggestions for getting out of all-or-nothing thinking: 

  • Notice. Now that you know what absolutist thinking is, start noticing if and when you’re falling into it. Listen for those absolute words: everyone, always, never, complete, etc.  

  • Practice cognitive defusion. Cognitive defusion involves looking at your thoughts objectively, which allows you to consider them from an outside perspective 

  • Realize that just because you think something, that doesn’t make it true or helpful. Byron Katie’s Four Questions can be helpful in reframing negative thoughts and squashing the brain’s automatic negative thought patterns. Ask yourself:  

    • Is this thought true? 
    • Can I absolutely, 100% know that this thought is true? 
    • How do I react to this thought?
    • Who would I be without this thought? 
  • Try to name the emotion instead of creating a distorted reality. An example McAdam gives is, instead of saying, “No one likes me,” say, “I feel lonely.” Identifying the emotion allows you to do something about it—so when you feel lonely, you could reach out to a friend 

  • Reframe the problem. Try to see both sides of a situation. Let’s say, for example, that your family didn’t like what you made for dinner tonight. Distorted thinking might say,I’m a horrible cook. They never like what I make.” A reframe might be, “They didn’t like that dish, but they liked what I made last night. It’s fun trying new recipes and I can’t expect everyone in my family to like every new recipe I make.” Another example is when someone says, “Last year was a horrible year.” Chances are, there were both good and not-so-good things that happened over the past 365 days, so a reframe might be, “Last year was a tough year in many respects, but there were also some good things that happened.”  

  • Acknowledge both your strengths and your weaknesses. A rigid, absolutist mindset says, “I can’t do anything right” or, on the flip side, “I’m perfect and do nothing wrong.  Acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses allows for a growth mindset. For example, if a relationship you’re in dissolves, not acknowledging your role and responsibility in the relationship not working doesn’t allow for your own personal growth, nor does it highlight where you could improve yourself.  

  • Ask yourself what function your absolutist thinking serves. Even though all-or-nothing thinking and other cognitive distortions can be an unhealthy mindset, there is a reason we do it. Many experts, including McAdam, feel that this way of thinking “protects” us from taking risks. It’s the brain’s way of keeping you safe. It’s doing its job—you’re still alive. But it can also keep you stuck in your comfort zone. This is fine if that’s where you want to stay, but if you want to venture out of your comfort zone, you must take risks.  

While absolutist thinking can seem benign, it can have some pretty significant effects on your life—like depression and other mental health issues. It can also stunt success in perfectionists. For example, your new website will never be perfect, so you procrastinate showing it to the world and ultimately never start that new business.  

Take an honest look at the words you use and the thoughts you have. Start breaking down your rigid mindset and cultivate a growth mindset with tools like reframing and challenging the negative and absolute thoughts. And be ready to see the world in a whole new light.  


If you are interested in learning more about how to use behavior-change strategies to help clients add more movement to their lives, check out this new ACE continuing education course: Mindful Movement: Coaching Clients to Become More Physically Active (worth 1.2 CECs). Through this course, you will learn new coaching techniques and be provided with tools and resources that will help you empower your clients to find purpose and enjoyment in movement. 

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