‘All or nothing’ thinking is a thought process that often accompanies a range of issues that I help clients with in my clinical hypnotherapy practice, from anxiety to low self-esteem.
Similarly, in my coaching work, this type of ‘unhealthy’ cognitive process can act as a barrier to a client making positive changes in their life or work. Once overcome, these changes often flow rapidly and with an easy momentum.
Identifying the Belief
What underpins ‘all or nothing’ thinking is the BELIEF that things are either ‘black or white’, ‘right or wrong’, ‘good or bad’, ‘successes or failures’.
This is an unhealthy belief because it’s both irrational and unsupportive. It encourages a focus on achieving the positive element of any thought with complete perfection. Anything short of this is seen as the opposite – negative or a failure.
In a therapeutic context, when applying this thinking, it follows that any challenge or setback, however small, is a sign that the person has failed, the therapy has not ‘worked’ or reinforces the negative self-belief that they are just a ‘lost cause’.
It is important to understand that ‘all or nothing’ thinking is just one of a number of generalisations and simplifications we often make to try and help us navigate the complex world of non-stop data bombarding our minds. However, it is also one that can go too far in its regular application and start producing these unwanted negative emotional responses.
Challenging the Belief
Once you accept that the belief ‘all or nothing’ thinking is irrational and unhelpful you can take steps to challenge and overcome it.
A simple way to challenge this type of thinking is a simple word swap in your language or internal self-talk.
Replace ‘Or’ With ‘And’
A person who sees their achievements in the world as either being a “success or a failure” and believes they are the latter will simply express it is as “I am a failure”.
This is such an unhealthy, limiting and potentially damaging belief. But in basic terms, it’s also simply not true – it’s an intellectually lazy simplification. What are the criteria for success or failure? Does success require no failure ever – that’s not realistic or achievable? How would you know when you are a success? How would you know when you are not a failure?
Instead, the moment you are saying or thinking in terms of being a ‘success or failure’, try switching ‘or’ with ‘and’. In this way you are shifting your perception to a more realistic one that accepts success AND failure as co-existing in the process of achievement and positive change.
“I am a success, I succeed at many things in my work and relationships, though sometimes I make mistakes and I always make a point to learn from these little failures on the road to further success.”
So you learn that it is human to be a ‘success and a failure’, a ‘healthy eater and a junk food eater’, etc. Progress in either case is marked by celebrating the successes and learning from the failures, so, over time, the positive element increasingly outweighs the negative.
Imagine these examples with the ‘all or nothing’ thinking applied – one tiny setback make you a total failure and a single bag of crisps in a month of healthy eating makes you a ‘junk food eater’.
So, start challenging ‘all or nothing’ thinking, say goodbye to unhealthy perfectionism and celebrate each positive step in your own personal development.