It would be next to impossible to dissect a person into all the individual components which may contribute to one’s depression. We are biological beings. We are social beings. We are affected by our hormones. We all have a past possibly filled with both joyful and traumatic events. We also have genetics to consider. Perhaps our mother or father had a mood disorder. We are behavioral beings reinforced or punished for our responses and reactions to our environment. As humans we also come loaded with biases, prejudices or attitudes regarding life’s challenges which may or may not be beneficial for our mental health. Any one of these elements may affect or be affected by our depression. In addition we are cerebral beings. We think. We have thoughts and cognitions. And some people say that these thoughts can have a profound effect upon our mood. This is why cognitive therapy is so popular for the treatment of depression. In this post we are going to be discussing one particular type of harmful cognition:
Depressed or not, we may all be guilty of all or nothing thinking from time to time. This is the type of thinking where one leaves no room for choices. There are only extremes and no middle ground.
Here are some examples of all or nothing thinking:
- I have had a bad time with several therapists therefore NOBODY can help me.
- I have tried a couple of antidepressants and they didn’t work. NO medication can help lift my depression.
- I had a fight with my boyfriend and best friend. NOBODY loves me.
- I have had three episodes of depression. I will ALWAYS feel depressed.
- I was abused by my boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse. ALL (men or women) are abusive.
- I was let go from my job. I will NEVER find another job.
- I have faced some difficult life challenges. NOBODY knows my pain.
- I had a bad experience with medication side effects. ALL medications are harmful to everyone.
- I have experienced severe depression. My pain is the WORST and NOBODY can relate to my experience. I am all alone in this.
See the pattern? It is certainly easy to get into this mindset particularly if you have depression. The depression feeds these types of thoughts and these negative thoughts feed your depression.
So why do we do this all or nothing thinking?
I have a personal theory on this. Remember Lucy from the Peanuts cartoon and her interactions with good 'ol gullible Charlie Brown? Lucy would play this "game" with Charlie Brown where she holds a football for him to kick. But each time he tries to kick it she whisks it away at the last minute and he falls flat on his back. "Aaaargh" Charlie Brown groans as Lucy smirks. Life is kinda like Lucy at times. You really want to trust that things will go well. But sometimes the football is whisked away leaving us wincing in pain and also angry that we trusted things might go well.
Not wanting to be a sucker in life, sometimes it seems easier to assume the worst. If we assume things are horrible and will never work out then we will spare ourselves the risk of trusting and hoping for life to improve. The problem with this way of thinking is that over time we play both the part of Lucy and Charlie Brown. In many cases we end up being the one to cause our own fall to the ground by never taking risks.
The "all or nothing" thinker is easy to spot
I consider this all or nothing thinking a stage of depression where the affected individual walks around with a proverbial chip on their shoulder. They may present themselves as a victim, helpless to do anything to improve their situation. Yet this self prescribed helplessness soon turns to rage and combativeness when you dare to provide support or help. "Been there, done that, didn’t work" might be their first reply to your offer of help. Empathy is met with ridicule, "You don’t know me. Nobody has had it worse than me" they proudly declare. Pain is worn like a badge of honor. They may tell you about all the people who have failed to help. They may describe in detail all of the treatments which didn’t work. They may seem to ask for help but then place you in a position of defending your abilities to help or your genuineness of care. All of a sudden this person’s mental health is not their responsibility but yours. You have become the unwilling target of someone who wishes to fight. But instead of fighting for their own mental well being they are twisting your arm with the intent that you cry uncle and validate their all or nothing thinking, that things are hopeless, will NEVER get better and that they should throw in the towel. This "helpless victim" finds a lot of energy to combat you if you dare to say that life is worth living.
How do I know this caricature so well? Easy. I have played both parts. I have been the angry all or nothing thinker. And I have also been on the other end, trying to help someone who is determined to hold onto this negative pattern of thinking. It is not an easy situation for either party.
In my next post I will be discussing ways to decrease all or nothing thinking. In the meantime we would love to hear from you. Do you ever engage in this sort of negative thinking? What has helped you the most to change the way you think? We want to hear your story
I am a mother, a writer, and now an MS patient