In full disclosure, I admit that over the years, I’ve experienced a lot of my own all-or-none thinking. Even nowadays, this judgmental “rightness of view” raises its ugly head. Maybe this form of thought will never really leave, but at least I’ve learned to recognize and step back from it a little bit, instead of it becoming fused with my identity.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) all-or-none thinking is considered a “thinking style” or “thinking error” that leads to cognitive distortions. Let me provide a couple examples of how all-or-none thinking can act like a bully that pushes you around (not to mention others).
I once worked with a client whose all-or-none thinking style made it difficult for him to be around others. His mind would tell him in no uncertain terms, “I’ll always be stuck in this job,” and, “there’s no way I can pass the training needed for a promotion.” He even had body-related thoughts, such as, “I’ll never lose this weight and get in shape.”
As a result, he avoided situations where he felt he would not measure up. Other than going to work, he avoided being around people because he feared being criticized.
Over time, this person’s world shrunk and he rarely went outside because his all-or-none thinking bullied him into thinking that he wasn’t good enough. He ended up ruminating on these thoughts and getting depressed and anxious as a result. Since he avoided going to the trainings necessary for getting promoted, his thinking style became a self-fulfilling prophecy that held him back.
Mindfulness Produces Diversity of Thinking
Mindfulness is a tool for recognizing thoughts, and in this way, helps us notice them in a more objective way. This means we can get curious about those thinking styles instead of buying into them. This shifts our relationship to the thought and even the emotion that the thought elicits.
A recent literature review published in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity described how mindfulness supports creativity and in educational settings “can benefit learning, creativity, and wellbeing.” The article also explores how mindfulness promotes a deliberate, or intentional, state of mind that promotes openness of thought.
Openness of thought is almost the opposite of a fixed all-or-none thinking style. Keep in mind that all-or-none thinking might be steeped in a protective belief system, or schema. In other words, having a fixed ideology or belief may seem to protect one against the barrage of information and belief systems that we would otherwise need to consider.
With the rise of so much competing (and divisive) information on almost every topic—COVID is a good example—having a singular point of view might seem easier. But keep in mind that a singular view may be a major distortion and unhelpful. And if you stick to it, those who are stuck on the other side will seem less relatable, to say the least!
Is it really worth bullying yourself and others with all-or-none thinking? If you find that your viewpoints have others running for the exits, consider the advantages of diverse thinking. Being right might feel good, but it’s not necessarily the right thing to do. Or at least not the best option.
3-Part Mindfulness Practice to Counter All-or-None Thinking
As with any skill, exercise, or practice, you want to start by taking small steps. You can’t run a marathon without doing a lot of training. So, to begin, pick out one of the all-or-none thoughts that dog you, that follow you around and rattle incessantly in your head. Usually, these thoughts have words like “always” or “never” attached to them. Those are clues that these are one-sided thoughts.
- Do an experiment and see how many times you can notice this all-or-none thought throughout the day. You’re not trying to change anything here. You’re just trying to practice observing the thought. Do this noticing practice for a week, writing down the number of times that you caught your all-or-none thought.
- For the next week, you can continue to notice the thought, but now, whenever you hear it, mentally say to yourself, “This is just a thought, it’s not who I am. It’s not a fact.” By doing this, you’re separating yourself ever so slightly from the thinking style.
- For the third week, you can write down a statement that is not so all-or-none that is more honest and truthful. Is there evidence, for example, that refutes your all-or-none statement? Surely, you have sometimes succeeded or followed through on something that invalidates the all-or-none thinking style.
If your thinking style is judging others in a harsh all-or-none way, look for evidence that helps you recognize that others are just people with frailties and worries who are trying their best to make their way in a challenging world! We’re all pretty much the same in that regard. See if you can soften your all-or-none statement.