Does ‘all-or-nothing thinking’ steal your happiness?

Do you often struggle with the duality of life? How can one feel brave and scared at the same time? Or fragile and strong? Life is beautiful and really really hard at times. All-or-nothing thinking is an unhelpful thinking style (a ‘cognitive distortion’ in psych lingo) that traps us by experiencing, engaging, and interacting with life in a single way, often to the extreme. This cognitive distortion can create a negative impact on our inner dialogue, our self-esteem, our relationships with others, and especially on our mood.

Cognitive distortions are irrational and illogical thoughts and beliefs that we subconsciously use to engage with ourselves, others, and the world. It is a biased perspective that got reinforced overtime but serves no function, except leave traces of disappointment, frustration, sadness, helplessness, desperation, anxiety, and depression.

Our thoughts and subconscious thinking styles are extremely powerful. The way we think shapes our world. – Derika de Villiers

David Burns, a world-renowned psychiatrist, researcher, and author has published numerous research studies on distorted thinking and its impact on depression and mental health. He has dedicated decades of his life to ‘feeling good‘ – and publish content to help you understand and challenge your cognitive distortions.

So let’s get started with changing your unhelpful thinking style:

All-or-nothing thinking is used when we are unwilling or unable to recognize that a certain person, situation, or interaction can be more than one extreme. For example: ‘I will be happy when I’m not afraid anymore’; ‘I will only feel good enough if I get 100 likes on this post’; ‘I will never find someone who will love me’. These are just 3 simple examples I want to use to explain all-or-nothing thinking. Life is not black-and-white/all-or-nothing even though some of us wish it could be. Life is colorful, complex, beautiful, and hard. Every color in every shade you can imagine. You just get stuck at times and unwilling or unable to recognize less extreme truths. When we use the all-or-nothing thinking style, we set a trap for ourselves. We can be happy and afraid simultaneously. We can feel good enough and not get any likes on our posts. You already have people in your life that love you and cares about you.

Take a moment and reflect on this thinking style: How often do you make use of this unhelpful thinking style? How often do you see people, situations, and relationships in the extreme? What emotions get evoked when using the all-or-nothing thinking style?

If you were honest with yourself, you would be able to recognize this unhelpful thinking style in your inner dialogue and how it affects your mood. We all make use of it, but when it becomes an automatic pattern when we look at certain people, situations, or relationships this way it will create frustration, helplessness, anger, sadness, stuckness, and anxiety.

It is important that when you get stuck and recognize this unhelpful thinking style, write the thought that is troubling you down. Take some distance from it. Then come back to this post, read it again and reframe it for yourself by using the examples above. It will help you to gain perspective and make space for the duality of life. Your thought impacts your feelings and gaining a new perspective, will shift your mood state too.

Let’s challenge and transform together in a happier version of ourselves!

written by Derika de Villiers, Clinical psychologist.