It’s a lovely Saturday morning, and you wake up ready to tackle the day. After your first cup of coffee, you notice your stomach starting to growl. You head to the kitchen to make your blueberry smoothie, but realize that you are out of a couple of crucial ingredients, including your berries and non-dairy milk.
Feeling out of sorts because your morning has suddenly taken a turn, you start nibbling on the pancakes you’ve made for the rest of your family, with your head spinning out of frustration. Thinking that your day is ruined because you started off the day with more carbs than you intended to eat all day, you decide to spend the rest of the day indulging in foods you’d normally avoid. You can’t possibly get back on track and eat healthy moving forward, right?
If this sounds familiar, or you’ve fallen victim to similar thought patterns, you are experiencing something called “all or nothing” thinking, also known as “black and white” thinking or polarized thinking. This thought pattern is what is known as a cognitive distortion, or experiencing negative thoughts that often serve as a protective mechanism as an adaptation to stress. We may also utilize cognitive distortions over the course of a lifetime as a way to deal with depression and anxiety as well.
With all or nothing thinking, you tend to think in extremes. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was either spot on or completely off. Your day didn’t go as perfectly planned so instead it is a complete disaster. This binary way of thinking has no room for “shades of gray” so you find yourself negatively evaluating your choices and decisions. As a result, your thoughts can easily spiral into feelings of disappointment, poor self-esteem, and shame as well.
All or nothing thinking is the one cognitive distortion that sets an unreasonable rule in which any outcome less than 100% equates to 0%. Go back and read that sentence again and ask yourself “Is this true?” Compare this to any test you’ve ever taken where you’ve scored less than 100% but maybe an 80 or 90% instead. Definitely not a 0% in my opinion, and I’m betting you wouldn’t view this as a complete failure either. So why do humans score themselves in this same way with things like wellness goals or while evaluating their desirable healthy action steps on any given day?
I see this thought pattern surface often with my clients as they are working on behavior change, whether that is hitting 10K steps daily, following a specific exercise program, or avoiding simple sugars as a quick form of energy. If you think about your diet and exercise goals in all-or-nothing terms, it is likely that one indiscretion will derail your efforts completely. In other words, if you stick to your diet 80% of the time, all-or-nothing thinking will lead to the belief that you’ve fully failed, and as a result, you feel as though you might as well resort to eating whatever you want, whenever you want.
The antidote to this troublesome way of thinking is making an effort to look for shades of gray. To recognize, “I was thrown off by that one cookie today, but the rest of my nutrition was solid.” Or, “One missed workout doesn’t erase the success I’ve had with my exercise plan. I’ve made significant changes to my movement and can expect things won’t always go as planned.”
I challenge you to go through your day and look for your own use of unconditional terms, noticing along the way how these terms may impact your daily decisions. Watch for your own use of words like never, always, nothing, everything, everyone, and constantly. Once you identify your use of such words, make an intentional effort to replace these very words with something that indicates more of a conditional term such as sometimes, possibly, or almost. Then notice if you start to perceive your situation or self-evaluation just a bit differently, or if you can see the positive in even the most challenging situations.
Awareness is the first step towards making positive changes to your health and wellness, and this includes taking the time to practice observing how negative thought patterns show up in your life day-to-day. You may not have the power to control all of life’s circumstances or challenges, but you do have the power to control your thoughts. Celebrate every one of your small victories today and remember that every small victory, even when less than your very best, is still a step in the right direction.