Unhelpful Thinking Styles: All or Nothing Thinking

Health Professional

I've written about different unhelpful thinking styles because they have the effect of tampering with logic, causing problems in how we interpret situations and frankly becoming pretty unhelpful in how we go about our daily lives. I've talked about how jumping to conclusions, often results in blaming, mistaking or personalizing situations unnecessarily. Similarly, our anxieties can lead to exaggeration where we might view aspects of life in catastrophic ways.  I'm rounding off this focus on unhelpful thinking styles by looking at extreme thinking.

Extreme, or all or nothing thinking, is about ignoring the gray areas of life and focusing on the extremes. Typically, this kind of thinking results in a view of life that has either very good or very bad outcomes. It is a form of thinking that leaves no room for error and is somewhat unforgiving. It can apply as much to the way a person views himself or herself as much as the way they regard other people or other situations. For example, a person may regard their family doctor as wonderful and as a person who can do no wrong, or a terrible clinician who never seems to understand and who never gets it right. Both are extreme sets of ideas and the reality, in both cases, is unlikely but possibly for a whole variety of different reasons.

We all maintain a number of ideas about the ways we should get by in life. These personal philosophies will often take the form of thoughts about what's right or wrong or what should or ought to be going on at any particular time. Our values are the product of our beliefs and attitudes which have taken a lifetime to develop. The problems begin when these beliefs become set in concrete and we begin to lose flexibility of thought. Examples of these extreme 'shoulds' are, 'if I don't succeed I'm useless.' Such high personal standards are of course problems waiting to happen, yet it can be incredibly hard to see such things in ourselves.

Allowing fallibility into a life that has become attuned to some fairly dogmatic personal values isn't always easy but this is a central task of cognitive therapy which recognizes that extreme thinking styles can sometimes lead to unhealthy negative emotions, anxiety and depression.