All or Nothing Thinking

by Jennifer Shindman, Psy.D.

How often have you said, or have heard someone say something like, if this goes wrong, my life is over, or something like, if I do not get a job after college, then I wasted the past four years. More specifically, have you ever generalized a specific event to your overall global experience? Have you ever said something like, my entire diet is ruined because I just ate that cookie, or I did a bad job at this presentation, thus, I am a terrible presenter? These sweeping generalizations are known as selective abstractions. This cognitive distortion occurs when an individual makes a judgment based on some information but disregards other information. These kinds of all or nothing beliefs can be detrimental to our emotional well-being as well as our overall functioning.

Although it is true that we are negatively affected when things do not go our way, we do not have to take it a step further and let these things color our entire experience. For example, if someone globally rates their life by thinking that losing their job means their life is over, that person will be at higher risk for feeling an unhealthy negative emotion like depression or anxiety. This individual is negating and losing sight of everything else that is good in his or her life. While it is true that a job is a very important part of life, it is not everything. There is still health, friends, family, interests, etc. But when we make sweeping global statements, all of this disappears. Because we cannot see the remaining good in our lives, we are more likely to neglect it and not take advantage of it. Our other responsibilities may fall by the wayside, as they are a part of life, which we now see as over. Additionally, if we believe that our life is over upon the loss of a job, it is less likely we would not be proactive in trying to remedy the situation and in finding new work. This kind of all or nothing or black and white thinking can really get us into trouble! Thus, it is important that we work on staying in the grey.

One way we can work to stay in the grey is by taking inventory of our lives whenever things do not go our way. For example, if you lose your job and take that to mean that your life is over, try taking a step back and count the reasons that this is not true. If you are trying to eat healthier and slip by eating a donut, it does not mean that you have totally failed at eating healthier and might as well give up. It is important to recognize when we are engaging in this kind of all or nothing thinking to then be able to stop ourselves and challenge the veracity of these global statements.

Again, it is more than likely that we will feel negative emotions when bad things occur; this is a given. However, it is up to us to take inventory and be cognizant of our beliefs so that they do not lead to unhealthy negative emotions and block us from appreciating what we have.

Jennifer Shindman, M.S.

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