All-or-nothing thinking is one of the many negative thought patterns known as cognitive distortions. It goes by many other names such as splitting as well as ‘black & white’ or polarized thinking. This type of flawed thinking means that a person sees things in black or white. For example, you are either successful or a total failure. This perception leaves no room for any grey area in between. It is common among perfectionists but can also be seen in people with anxiety depression, or low self-esteem.
Polarized thinking can manifest in all sorts of circumstances. In most cases, however, people use this negative perception in how they define themselves or their values and beliefs. They also make use of the all-or-nothing notion to make sense of their experiences and the world around them. Ultimately, their self-worth ends up being tied to what they want to accomplish, be or do.
Polarized thinking can have a detrimental psychological effect if not kept in check. Since this cognitive distortion limits people to judging matters from one of two perspectives, it creates an inability to see alternative solutions to a situation or problem. What’s more, this limited way of thinking creates extremely impossible expectations. With each thought, a polarized thinker will be more inclined to try and achieve the positive part (for example, getting a perfect score, leading a great life, or marrying the perfect spouse). Since perfection is all too often unattainable, all-or-nothing thinkers often settle for the negative side of a thought (e.g. failure, mediocrity or dissatisfaction). As a result, people view themselves and their situations negatively, which often lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, depression, or low motivation.
In addition, all-or-nothing thinking can keep you from starting something because you never quite found the perfect means, time, place, or circumstances to start. For some people, it may lead to never finishing a project because it ends up not being perfect.
Given that all-or-nothing thinking has been tied to a number of negative psychological effects, it is important to learn how you can break free from this flawed notion and live a more fulfilling life. Here are a few tips that can help with this.
• Accept the fact that to be human is to err
Recognise the fact that making mistakes is part of being human. When things go wrong, it is not the end of the world. The sooner you accept that no one is perfect the easier it will be to forgive yourself when things don’t turn out as expected and focus your attention on moving forward.
• Devise a plan for dealing with failure
To break away from the effects of polarized thinking, have a plan in place to deal with imperfections. For example, when the desired outcome from a given situation is not achieved, you can decide to take a step back and evaluate what is working or not working and then find areas where improvements can be made for better results next time.
• Learn to consider all options
Life is not black and white is a cliché you will hear often, but holds plenty of truth to it. By learning how to view things from different perspectives, you can break away from the limiting way of all-or-nothing thinking.
• Avoid procrastinating because of imperfections
Don’t give up on a project or goal because you made a mistake. Instead, embrace the fact that false starts or faults don’t matter if the final outcome can still be achieved.
Getting rid of all-or-nothing thinking requires a conscious effort, patience and time. Once you tame this negative thought pattern, it will help you lead a more satisfying life.
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