All-or-nothing thinking: It’s silly to expect you can have everything

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The all-or-nothing mindset (also known as polarized thinking, dichotomous thinking or “black‑and‑white thinking”) is a common thinking error that turns you into a bitter perfectionist who gets emotionally irritated by the smallest deviations from unreachable expectations.

Since your expectations are completely unrealistic, and then life happens, you are constantly irritated, bitter and depressed.

With all-or-nothing thinking, any small imperfection turns your life into a big drama. Many times, you even tend to blame yourself for it. And during the day, many imperfections always do happen.

How good can you feel then about yourself and life? Once you become aware of your all-or-nothing thinking patterns and how silly they are, you can finally breathe easier and calm down.

Practical examples

Here are some examples of all-or-nothing thinking:

  • In partnership: You see your partner as perfect and you are so madly in love. They are smart, charming, caring, passionate … everything you ever wanted. Then one day they don’t call you or you have a little fight for whatever reason. And the relationship isn’t perfect anymore, it goes from everything to nothing. You start to dwell on how unlucky you are, you focus on your partner’s imperfections and how you don’t deserve real love.
  • In other relationships: The same can happen in every relationship … with your parents, kids, or friends. They might be wonderful, until they do the slightest thing that’s not within your expectations, and the value of the relationship falls to nothing.
  • At your job: You want it all, a high salary, good job, creative type of work, flexibility, the best coworkers, good bonuses etc. And then one single thing that doesn’t completely meet your expectations makes your job the worst job in the world.
  • In an exam: You provided really good answers to all of the questions in an exam, except one. But because of this one question, you feel horrible and ashamed, the examiner will see you for the fake you are or you might even fail the test.
  • Diet: You decide to follow a new diet. But because it’s so demanding, you only manage to follow it 90% of the time. But this 90% feels like you completely failed the diet, you’ll never lose weight and you feel like complete loser.
  • Different life situations: Travelling, wedding, almost any situation where you have unrealistic expectations. You expect your travel or wedding to be perfect, and then a mosquito bites you, and everything turns into the worst experience of your life.
  • How you see yourself: The favorite target of your mind is unfortunately you. Consequently, you are no exception in going from everything to nothing. For example, you might have a nice day and feel good, but then you make a small error at work, and suddenly you are worth nothing.

When you mind is thinking in absolute all-or-nothing terms, usually words (absolute terms) like “always”, “never”, “every”, “nothing”, “either … or” are used. You don’t see things holistically, but only as right or wrong, good or bad, black or white and middle ground is not considered.

All-or-nothing thinking usually comes with a “should” statement and strong feelings of self-blame. You convince yourself that things should be different (more perfect) and then on top of that, you often blame yourself for the situation.

You focus on how your shortcomings, bad decisions, failures or mistakes have gotten you in such a horrible situation. You know that you are not good enough, that you don’t deserve things and that you’re a compete loser.

Unrealistic expectations

Everything starts with unrealistic expectations

All-or-nothing thinking always starts with unrealistic expectations. You unconsciously set the bar so high, it’s simply unreachable. And then your mind keeps guard for any small deviation, an imperfection that happens sooner or later.

When that happens, you are devastated and can’t believe how unlucky you are. But that’s only your mind trying to make your life miserable.

It’s absolutely good to keep high standards and strive for the best, but at the same time you must keep realistic expectations. There’s no such thing as a perfect job, every job has its pluses and minuses.

People do make mistakes, even you, and that’s pretty normal. All relationships have their ups and downs. Mosquitos do bite if you decide to go on a travel adventure during the summer.

Making a fixed vision of how something must turn out perfectly, otherwise it’s worth nothing is a formula for making sure an experience will be shitty for you.

Because even when the highest standards are met, you can always find some imperfections to dwell on. There can always be this one small thing that makes everything worthless. That kind of thinking can only bring misery to your life.

Extreme form of thinking: I’m either a success or a failure. If I don’t do everything perfectly, then I’m a failure. An outcome less than 100% equals 0%.

If you are wondering where that kind of thinking comes from, it’s very simple. You want everything to be perfect in order to be more loved, admired and accepted.

And you assume that every small imperfection will put you on a judging stand, where people will gossip how unworthy of love you are. But that’s only your perception, because nothing was probably good enough for your parents.

The problem is that in your mind, everything goes to nothing

The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is going from 100% to 0% and then back to 100% and again back to 0% again and again.

You swing from a perfect illusion in your mind until you find a small imperfection and then everything goes to nothing. When things calm down, you might go straight back to your illusion until you spot another imperfection.

Everything is perfect, you had one little fight, and your mind is already at a breakup. You feel wonderful at your job, it’s perfect, it’s just that the salary could be 10% higher, and suddenly you’re dreaming of how much better other jobs must be and how unlucky you are.

You have this good friend who never lets you down, and this one time they didn’t call, and you’re so mad at them, you never expected they can be so irresponsible. A mosquito bites you, a mosquito … on a dreamy Thai island and now your arm itches, how can you enjoy the view now …

Sometimes in life, things do get shitty. Sometimes bad things do happen. Some things in life are unacceptable and can really throw you out of the center.

But more often than not, your mind tries to convince you that things are much darker and terrible than they actually are. When that happens it’s time to stop your mind and enjoy life instead.

If things go 80% your way on your wedding day, maybe that’s a realistic expectation. And for the other 20% you might just surrender and accept that not everything is under your control.

The problem doesn’t occur if you see a few errors and try to correct them, or strive to make things even better the next time. The problem is when a person, situation or experience goes to complete shit, destruction, misery, worthlessness, devastation or ruin just because something (small) didn’t go as you expected.

A small imperfection, and suddenly you don’t see the good things anymore. Everything is bad, black. All the pluses are gone. If you can’t have it perfect, you would rather have nothing. That’s not how life works.

The gray areas where life unfolds

It’s only your mind’s illusion that people would love you more if you were perfect. It’s only your mind’s dirty misconception that you can only be happy if you have the perfect job, the perfect wedding, trip, spouse, friends or anything else.

You can be happy, even when life is not perfect. Because life rarely is perfect, since there are almost no absolutes in this world.

No emotionally healthy person would expect you to be perfect. That can only be an expectation from people who suffer from the same cognitive distortions and people who are unhappy with themselves. As you are when you think in absolute terms.

Perfect standards are shared only among unhappy people, your inner critic and probably your parents who were never satisfied. It’s time to take a step out of this vicious circle. It’s time to free yourself and be happy in all life’s imperfections.

Every job has its pluses and minuses. There are always minuses present. Long working hours, long commute, boring work, average salary or whatever. You don’t have to suffer at a job you hate, but you can find a job that meets most of your standards and then simply enjoy your work. A small thing you don’t like is not a big enough reason to make yourself miserable at work.

On every vacation, some things don’t go as expected. Maybe a hotel room is smaller than you expect, there are too many rainy days or your wallet gets stolen. These things happen all the time. But most of them can be solved quickly or should simply be accepted since they are out of your control, and then you can continue enjoying your vacation.

And every relationship has its pluses and minuses. Every relationship has its ups and downs. And there is always some annoying behavior you don’t like about every single person. Being late, laughing too loudly or talking a little bit too much. But that doesn’t make a relationship worthless. That’s not something to fixate your mind on. Instead focus on all the positives.

Life unfolds in the gray areas. There are no black and whites. Don’t bring things in your mind from everything, when they seem perfect, to nothing when the smallest thing doesn’t go according to your expectations.

It doesn’t make sense to go from 100% to 0% when only 5% doesn’t go as you expected. Don’t go for perfect, go for good enough instead.

All-or-nothing thinking

In everything good, there is something bad

You are probably familiar with the Yin and Yang symbol from the Chinese philosophy. The symbol perfectly illustrates the duality of life, how contrary forces are interdependent and interconnected, and how nothing can be perfect in the natural world.

The only thing I would add are gray areas on the borders between the dualities.

First of all, the good can’t exist without the bad. If you didn’t experience at least some sorrows, troubles and challenges, you simply wouldn’t know what good, smooth and awesome is.

There is no light without dark. So, don’t expect only light. Expect life to happen as a whole experience, with all the good things and not-so-good things.

Secondly, there is a little bit of bad in everything good and a little bit of good in everything bad.

You can turn a disaster into a blessing (with a redemptive narrative), a tragedy into a comedy, and a problem into an innovative solution. Only a movie with a good complication is a good movie.

On the other hand, soft times make soft people, too much chocolate will make you puke, and too much money can make you super lazy. There are no absolutes and perfections in life.

Almost everything has its pluses and minuses. With everything that you experience, everyone you meet, there are some good things and some things not to your liking.

Just make sure your mind doesn’t turn the whole Yin and Yang symbol into a big dark black hole because a small stain appears on your white canvas. If you let your mind escalate in such a negative direction, you’re definitely going to experience only misery in life.

You must become mindful of when your emotional response is out of proportion in all-or-nothing a way.

How to deal with all-or-nothing thinking – Thinking in shades of gray

First of all, you must become aware of the big difference between when something bad does happen to you and you have every right to feel anger, sadness or any other negative emotions, and when a small irritation or imperfection turns your mind into a drunken negative monkey that tries to hurt you and everybody around.

There’s a big difference between the following situations:

  • After dating a person for a few months, you realize they’re not the person for you, that you don’t fit together very well and it’s time to break up. It’s okay to be sad, but you know it’s the right thing to do.
  • You are dating for a few months and everything is going so well. You are crazy in love and happy, but then you have a small fight; or you find a small imperfection. For example, your music tastes differ. And then suddenly everything goes to nothing, you see only the dark in the person, your miserable love life, everything is so dark …
  • You were dating for a few months, things went really well, you were crazy in love, but then s/he cheated on you. You were so angry and disappointed and it hurt so much. You decided to break up, because cheating is unacceptable to you.

It’s not hard to recognize the scenario in which all-or-nothing thinking is present. It’s the second one, of course.

The first step to evict the all-or-nothing thinking error is to mindfully recognize when your mind is going crazy and takes something from 100% straight to 0%, just because of a small imperfection.

Then you must decisively stop your mind:

  • Say to yourself: “I’m thinking in black and white terms, that’s “suboptimal thinking
  • Practice thought-stopping: Just say “Stop!” to yourself
  • Remind yourself that you’re not expecting perfect, just good enough
  • List all the positives of the situation or a person dear to you
  • Say to yourself that you’re going to be okay, even if you can’t control everything
  • Remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love
  • Analyze how your emotional reaction is maybe out of proportion and what’s a more proportionate reaction
  • Practice thinking in shades of gray

The all-or-nothing mindset is a recipe for a miserable life. Don’t be trapped in your own unrealistic standards. Nobody is 100% right or 100% wrong.

Cognitive behavioral therapist David D. Burns, author of the book Feeling Good, recommends that you practice a technique called “Thinking in Shades of Gray”.

Try to evaluate a situation, person or anything that forces you into black-and-white thinking on a sliding scale from 0% to 100%. You will quickly realize that there aren’t many things that can be marked at 0%.

You can’t be everything and you can’t be nothing. We are all somewhere in between. And I like you as you are, you don’t have to be perfect.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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