All-or-Nothing Thinking - What It Is, and How to Challenge It (1/2)

All-or-Nothing Thinking, or Black and White Thinking, is when we misinterpret a continuous situation as only having dichotomous outcomes. Everyone engages in this type of thinking every now and then, but it can become a problem when these thoughts become too incessant.

By Meng-lin (Benny) Hsieh, M.Ed., Counseling Psychologist in Taiwan

"That's not counseling."

That was what my internship supervisor said to me one day. Much like in the U.S., practitioners in Taiwan need to accrue supervised hands-on experience as part of our professional training. Only, this stage happens prior to the licensure examination in Taiwan. I had gotten my degree in the States, but I decided to pursue licensure in my home country. That's a story for another time.

I completed my internship at a university counseling center. Before my weekly meeting with my supervisor, I would listen to the recordings of my sessions with my client. Being trained primarily in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, I re-organized my case notes by highlighting the "cognitive work" I did with them, i.e., the thoughts I've identified with them that was causing them distress, and a proposal for how to challenge particular thoughts that are inaccurate or unhelpful. I came into the supervision meeting feeling confident that I had done my job fairly well. I presented my case to my supervisor.

And then I was slapped with a slight frown and those 3 words. "That's not counseling."

My supervisor was simply pointing out that instead of focusing too much on what I think would be helpful to the client and almost rushing towards a solution, which is a common mistake rookie therapists make; it's equally important to pay due attention to what the client thinks and feels; to not just what they are telling me, but also how they are telling it. Different therapists gravitate toward different modalities, but even in CBT, we believe (and have empirical evidence that) for effective cognitive restructuring to happen, the client's feelings about their problems need to be acknowledged first. This was valuable advice that has guided my work to this day.

But all I could think about during that moment was: "Gosh, I'm such a failure. I will never become a good therapist." That was one of my personal experience (out of many, many more) of All-or-Nothing Thinking, and the memory that pops up for me when I notice my clients doing the very same thing.

What is All-or-Nothing Thinking?

All-or-Nothing Thinking, or Black and White Thinking, is when we misinterpret a continuous situation as only having dichotomous outcomes. For instance, thinking that the Christmas party that you've been planning for over 3 months will "either be a raging success or a huge dumpster fire." All-or-Nothing Thinking is something that everybody does to some extent, primarily because it's easier to wrap our heads around clear-cut ideas rather than try to grapple with ambiguity. Since it is our brain's job to analyze information, naturally it makes sense that our brains would try to take shortcuts so they can free up more resources to generate potential solutions.

All-or-Nothing Thinking, like any of the other common thinking traps (or "cognitive distortions"), is learned. Meaning that it serves some type of function for the individual: perhaps it saves time (reinforcement via an expected reward), or perhaps it decreases anxiety by removing uncertainty (reinforcement via the removal of an undesirable outcome, or negative reinforcement), or maybe both at the same time.

Nevertheless, All-or-nothing Thinking is logically flawed, not only because such analysis tends to be an overly simplified version of events and thus does not accurately reflect reality, but also that people pay overdue focus on the "nothing" or negative aspects of such extreme conclusions, while paying no mind to the equally extreme but equally probable (at least in theory) positive outcomes.

Black and White Thinking Correlates with Anxiety and Depression

All-or-Nothing Thinking appears in a variety of situations. I remember one of my classmates in the 3rd grade burst into tears after receiving a 98 out of 100 on their math exam. To them, making a careless mistake amounted to failing the test completely.

Many studies point to biases in thinking as an important factor in the development and maintenance of mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. It's easy to see how someone who, perhaps unknowingly, tends to make negative, but inaccurate, interpretations of events in their life would feel on-edge constantly. In Pride and Prejudice for example, the mother of the main character could not rest until ALL of her daughters who were eligible for marriage were matched.

And in my own example of "the disastrous supervision meeting", if the way I interpreted my supervisor's feedback was to think that she was criticizing my whole being, it would make sense how that interaction exacerbated my own insecurities regarding my professional ability and even identity, and triggered my go-to coping mechanism: which is to engage in self-blaming.

Needless to say, I felt super discouraged and low for quite a while afterwards. But luckily, with the help of my friends, professor, and those who care about me, I gradually got out of that emotional funk. In the next article, I will elaborate on how past experiences contribute to the development of All-or-Nothing Thinking, and some easy steps you can take to challenge your own Black and White Thinking. 

Stay tuned.


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