161. All or Nothing Thought Distortion

By: Michael Beiter

All or nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion.
 
It refers to your tendency to evaluate your personal qualities in extreme, black-or-white categories.
 
For example, someone who didn't lose all the weight they wanted told me, "Because I didn't lose 45 lbs I'm a zero."
 
A habitual exerciser who works out 7 days a week averaged a couple weeks of 5 days and concluded "I'm a total failure."
 
All-or-nothing thinking forms the basis of perfectionism. It causes you to fear any mistake or imperfection because you will then see yourself as a complete loser, and you will feel inadequate and worthless.
 
This way of evaluating things is unrealistic because life is rarely either one way or the other.
 
For example, no one is absolutely brilliant or totally stupid. Similarly, no one is either completely attractive or totally ugly.
 
Take a look at the floor in your room right now. Is it perfectly clean? Is it piled high with every inch full of dust and dirt? Or is it a little of both?
 
Absolutes do not exist in this universe. If you try to force your experiences into absolute categories, you will be constantly depressed because your perceptions will not conform to reality. You will set yourself up for discarding yourself endlessly because whatever you do will NEVER measure up to your exaggerated expectations. The technical name fo this type of perceptual error is "dichotomous thinking."
 
You see everything as black or white - shades of gray do not exist. If your performance falls short of perfect you view yourself as a total failure.
 
- Dr. David Burns - Feeling Good - with a bit of Mike sprinkled in for fitness and nutrition relevance. 

I find it valuable to look at things on a continuum where you've identified the worst and best of a situation.
 
On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 is the worst, 10 is the best.
 
Label each and realize there are 9 steps of separation from worst to best that occupies all the other options. The shades of gray on a black and white scale if you can imagine.
 
Drawing a bell curve over the top further illustrates that most of us, most of the time are not at the extremes of all or nothing, but rather somewhere in between.
 
Embracing this can help you start to see the good in your actions and break up your distorted line of dichotomous thinking. 


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