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All-or-Nothing Thinking: The Impact of a Black-and-White Mentality

You’ve likely experienced all-or-nothing thinking at some point in your life. The tendency to think in extremes, such as seeing success or failure as your only two options, can happen to anyone, especially during stressful times. 

However, when all-or-nothing thinking becomes the norm for someone, it can negatively affect their mood and lead to decreased confidence, lower self-esteem, and a lack of self-compassion. This is particularly damaging for teens and young adults whose brains are still developing. 

To better understand all-or-nothing thinking and its impact on mental health, we spoke with Amy Girimonti, a licensed master social worker at the Embark Behavioral Health outpatient therapy clinic in Phoenix, Arizona. Having worked with many teens and young adults, Girimonti has seen the negative effects of this type of thinking and offered strategies for recognizing it and replacing it with healthier thoughts. 

What Is All-or-Nothing Thinking? 

All-or-nothing thinking — also known as black-and-white thinking and dichotomous thinking — is a common cognitive distortion that frequently happens to people with anxiety-related issues 

“Cognitive distortions are basically thinking mistakes,” Girimonti explained. 

By placing experiences, choices, and people into polarized categories like “right” and “wrong,” all-or-nothing thinking keeps teens and young adults from challenging their thought process and leaves them more prone to negative thoughts.  

Girimonti has found that young people who engage in this dichotomous thinking tend to see situations in extremes, feeling nothing ever goes their way or that disappointing someone automatically means that person hates them.    

Examples of All-or-Nothing Thinking 

What does seeing the world in black and white look like? Here are some examples of all-or-nothing thinking. 

Thinking in absolutes 

Thinking in absolutes happens when someone only sees one extreme or the other. Whatever challenges these viewpoints is either ignored or discounted, leaving no room for in-betweens or shades of grey.  

Teens and young adults who think in absolutes may make statements such as:  

  • I’ll always be unpopular. 
  • I’ll never make the team. 
  • Nothing ever works out for me. 
  • I’m completely useless to everyone. 
  • Passing this course is impossible.

Girimonti noted that young people with mental health disorders can get stuck in negative absolutist thinking patterns that contribute to depression, increase anxiety, and make their painful emotions feel overwhelming. This in turn leads to poor self-esteem when they compare themselves to others and reduces their motivation because they feel nothing will work out for them. 

Other examples of all-or-nothing thinking 

Even when teens and young adults do well in their school and social lives, black-and-white thinking can make them focus on their mistakes and flaws while discounting their strengths and accomplishments. Those who adopt this mindset tend to: 

  • Have a glass-half-empty viewpoint. 
  • Believe tasks must be completed perfectly. 
  • Have difficulty receiving feedback. 
  • Feel even making small mistakes is a catastrophe. 
  • Fear failure.

What Causes All-or-Nothing Thinking? 

“I’ve often found that all-or-nothing thinking can be based on things we were told as children that we’ve accepted as facts, reinforced, and internalized,” Girimonti said. “These messages, which can include false or overgeneralized statements, may become our beliefs about ourselves and the world — and they can be overly negative and critical.” 

Ultimately, there’s no single root cause for what causes all-or-nothing thinking. However, mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, shame, a lack of self-worth, difficulty regulating emotions, and traumatic experiences all play a part in developing cognitive distortions. Below are several conditions associated with black-and-white thinking.  

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) 

There is a connection between BPD and all-or-nothing thinking, as young people who have borderline personality disorder tend to engage in black-and-white thinking. This thought pattern can be stressful and can contribute to their difficulty in controlling emotions, intense mood swings, and unstable relationships with others.  

Substance abuse and addiction 

Black-and-white thinking and addiction can go together. For instance, the belief that nothing will ever get better for them can lead a young person to drink excessively. These black-and-white thought patterns can also persist during recovery. A teen or young adult who associates sobriety with a better life may relapse into addiction if they begin experiencing hardships. 

Depression 

When it comes to depression and black-and-white thinking, intense feelings of sadness can cause young people to think in absolutist terms. For instance, they’ll believe that they’ll always feel bad or that nothing will work out for them. As these emotions get stronger, black-and-white thinking can become more extreme. 

Autism 

There is a relationship between all-or-nothing thinking and autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that includes difficulties with social interaction. Individuals on the spectrum can struggle with understanding nuances and nonverbal gestures and may use black-and-white thinking to make sense of the world. This may cause them to see a test with anything less than a perfect score as a failure or an argument as a sign that a friendship is over.  

Eating disorders 

A connection between all-or-nothing thinking and eating disorders has been seen in young people with bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and anorexia nervosa. People with these disorders may divide what they eat into “good foods” and “bad foods” or label their eating behaviors as “good” or “bad.” They can’t accept that all foods can be part of a healthy diet if consumed in moderation.  

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 

Regarding ADHD and all-or-nothing thinking, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes people to have difficulty paying attention and controlling impulsive behavior. All-or-nothing thinking may show up in young people with ADHD when they throw themselves completely into a new hobby or activity only to abandon it later. Such extreme actions make it difficult to engage in more moderate behavior. 

Anxiety 

Anxiety and all-or-nothing thinking often go together. In fact, this type of thought pattern is common in young people who are anxious, and it can be quite stressful. As a teen or young adult begins focusing on the negative, anxiety continues to rise, worsening the symptoms. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness associated with compulsions to do something over and over as well as ruminating or intrusive thoughts. Young people with this disorder tend to engage in all-or-nothing thinking because seeing their situations in absolutes gives them a sense of control. Unfortunately, when black-and-white thinking and OCD are connected, this thinking pattern can become rigid and difficult to change. 

Narcissism 

Narcissism involves having a heightened sense of self. Because narcissists tend to think in extremes — believing they’re the best at everything or that everyone is against them — black-and-white thinking and narcissism often go together.    

Trauma 

Trauma and black-and-white thinking have been linked to each other. When a young person who’s been traumatized attempts to make sense of the experience, they may interpret it from an absolutist perspective, feeling it’s all their fault or that the world is completely unfair for allowing it to occur. 

The Impact of All-or-Nothing Thinking 

The impact of black-and-white thinking on a regular basis can be serious for young people. 

“All-or-nothing thinking focuses on mistakes and flaws and will often discount strengths, accomplishments, and effort,” Girimonti said. “It tells us that if we can’t do something perfectly, it’s not worth doing. Everything — from your view of yourself to your life experiences — is divided into black-or-white terms. This leaves room for little, if any, grey area in between.” 

The impact of black-and-white thinking includes: 

  • Reduced self-confidence and self-esteem. 
  • Feeling overwhelmed. 
  • Difficulty with developing and maintaining trusting relationships, as this type of thinking can make it tough to have close relationships.  
  • Difficulty handling work or school pressure
  • A lack of self-worth. 
  • A distorted, unhealthy view of reality.

How To Stop All-or-Nothing Thinking 

When helping teens and young adults stop black-and-white thinking, Girimonti focuses on getting them to recognize their strengths. She helps them see that setbacks will happen, but finding the positive in situations and remaining mindful is important to remaining balanced.  

It can be difficult to stop all-or-nothing thinking, but the following strategies could help your teen or young adult. 

Try emotional regulation 

Emotional regulation or emotional self-regulation involves recognizing, managing, and responding appropriately to emotions. This may involve a teen or young adult calming themself through movement or breathing, accepting their feelings, and leading a lifestyle that supports stress management. Girimonti emphasized engaging in exercise, proper nutrition, hydration, and healthy sleep schedules. Open and honest communication, along with empathy (and self-empathy), also helps regulate emotions.  

Use metacognition 

Metacognition is the process of becoming aware of one’s thinking and learning patterns. By engaging in metacognitive behavior, teens and young adults can identify when they’re having thoughts that involve extreme words like “always” and “never.” They can also become aware of how certain scenarios trigger all-or-nothing thinking, helping them become more mindful of their thought processes. As a result of this mindfulness, Girimonti said teens and young adults can have more self-empathy and more easily connect and communicate with others in an open, honest way. 

Use cognitive restructuring 

Cognitive restructuring is a process designed to help people notice and change negative thinking patterns. Examples include identifying unproductive thought patterns, questioning assumptions, determining the accuracy of thoughts, and coming up with alternate ways of looking at experiences and people. Girimonti said with enough practice, teens and young adults can break the cycle of negativity that could be triggered by negative thinking and replace it with a healthier, more balanced way of thinking. That, in turn, can lead to lower stress, strengthened communication skills, and rebuilt self-confidence and self-esteem

Reach out to a therapist 

Finding a therapist who specializes in cognitive distortions and negative thinking patterns can help teens and young adults work through issues with dichotomous thinking. Girimonti recommended working with therapists who use trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), which focuses on how thoughts, feelings, and behavior influence each other, as well as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which emphasizes regulating emotions and mindfulness.  

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Wrapup 

If your teen or young adult is engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, you can help them develop healthier ways of viewing their world. Encourage them to reflect on their thoughts and question them. Examine your own thought processes, and model alternate ways of considering the nuances and grey areas of difficult situations. If you feel your child needs additional help, contact a therapist. 

While overcoming all-or-nothing thinking can be challenging, spotting the signs of it and addressing them early on is key to ensuring your teen or young adult embraces healthier thought patterns and enjoys good mental health.   

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.