All-or-Nothing Thinking: Understanding its Impact on Self-Care

Your brain wants to make your life easier. It creates rules, shortcuts, and ways of seeing the world in an attempt to simplify your life.

Some of those shortcuts are useful. Isn't it nice that your brain can intuitively sense when your matcha latte is too hot to drink?

But some of those simplifications are simply unhelpful. Psychologists call that way of thinking cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are a funhouse mirror way of thinking that keeps us from seeing the world as it is.

If you'd like a more official definition, PyschCentral defines cognitive distortions this way:

[A cognitive distortion] is an exaggerated pattern of thought that’s not based on facts. It consequently leads you to view things more negatively than they really are.

At this point, you're probably starting to connect some dots. Maybe you're telling yourself, "Ohhhhhh, so when someone doesn't message me back right away, and I assume they're mad at me...That's a cognitive distortion."

Oof. I've been there. And yes, you're right. That one's called catastrophizing.

There are all kinds of cognitive distortions, and I love talking about them. Maybe this will be a series at some point?

But we're getting really specific today. Let's talk about one of the thought patterns I hear all the time in the Inner Workout community: all-or-nothing thinking.

What is all-or-nothing thinking and how does it impact self-care?

We are a self-care company, after all. Of course we're going to relate these concepts to our self-care and inner work. Before we make some connections, let's make sure we're on the same page about this type of thinking.

So, what is an all-or-nothing mindset?

This mindset goes by many names. There's the name with what my dad would refer to as a 13-dollar word: dichotomous thinking. Binary thinking. Either/or thinking. Black or white thinking.

Just by using context clues, you're probably starting to suss out what this thinking pattern entails. All-or-nothing thinking is a v. common cognitive distortion that tells us there are only two options, two identities, or two ways to view a situation. There's nothing in between. No shades of gray to be had.  

Sometimes we turn that thinking inwards: I'm either a great daughter, or I'm a terrible daughter.

Sometimes we turn that thinking outwards: That friend either cares about me, or they don't.

Sometimes we use that thinking to evaluate a situation: There's the "right" way, and the "wrong" way.

You might have an all-or-nothing mindset if...

  • You care more about the destination than the journey.  The journey has too much in-between space, but the destination is all about absolutes. Either you have the certificate or you don't. You made the sale, or you didn't. Progress isn't a word you think about often.
  • You view yourself at either end of a spectrum. You're amazing, or you're horrible. If your inner critic is especially loud, you might not even notice that another end of the spectrum exists. All you can hear is your inner critic telling you that you have no talent, your friends secretly hate you, and your run doesn't count because you only went 1.5 miles instead of three.
  • You struggle to find middle ground in relationships or conversations. Sometimes you don't notice binary thinking in your inner dialogue because you're so used to it, but you might notice it popping out when you're talking to other people. The words "always" and "never" are all-or-nothing terms that create distance and defensiveness in your relationships.

Perfectionism + all-or-nothing thinking: a disastrous duo

In my unscientific opinion, you're guaranteed to experience this negative thinking pattern if you're a perfectionist.

By definition, a perfectionist is someone with "excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations."

Those high standards can keep you from getting started if the conditions aren't precisely what you've decided they need to be. There are the "right" conditions—for moving your body, for writing, for making progress on your knitting project—or the "wrong" conditions.

There are no in-betweens. Textbook black-and-white thinking.

Those overly critical self-evaluations are music to your inner critic's ears. You tell yourself, "I'm a failure" for missing a day of meditating instead of celebrating the fact that meditation has become such a habit you notice when you miss a day.

As you can see, perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking are a disastrous duo that feed on each other. It's not all bad news, though. As you work to overcome all-or-nothing thinking, you'll also chip away at your perfectionism.

Examples of all-or-nothing thinking in different scenarios

If you're like me, just learning about a concept doesn't do it for you. You need concrete examples. So let's look at how seeing things in extremes shows up in self-care and inner work.

Notice which examples feel familiar, and try to come up with some examples of your own. Ready?

All-or-nothing thinking in self-care

At Inner Workout, we define self-care as listening within and responding in the most loving way possible. So all-or-nothing thinking may stop us from checking in with ourselves. Your inner critic might've convinced you that you have nothing of value to share. Or maybe that's not where you struggle.  This mindset can also keep you from taking aligned action based on your inner wisdom.

Let's take a look at a few examples.

Turning that thinking inwards: I haven't earned self-care today because I'm a lazy slob. Hear that zero-sum thinking? You've made two categories for yourself—productive or lazy slob. And if you fall into the lazy slob category, welp, no self-care for you that day.

Turning that thinking outwards: Self-care is only possible for people like them. You know, the people with rich partners and no worries. Once again, you've created a dichotomy. There are the people who over there who can practice self-care. Then there's you all the way on the other side. Your life looks different, so, by your logic, self-care isn't possible.

Using that thinking to evaluate a situation: I only have two minutes to journal. That's not enough to do morning pages. Let me skip it. In your mind, there's only the "right" way and everything else, so you miss out on opportunities to take care when the "right" way isn't available.

How does either/or thinking get in the way of your self-care? It shows up differently for all of us, but the end result is the same. We don't practice self-care. We don't use the time and resources available to us. This mindset clouds our thinking so we can't see the opportunities in front of us.

All-or-nothing thinking in inner work

Inner work is the work you do to become more of who you already are. It's a process of discovery, and, lemme tell you, all-or-nothing thinking loves to make its presence known in the process.

Curious what that looks like? I've got some not-so-hypotheticals.

Turning that thinking inwards: I haven't run a race yet, so I'm not a real runner. Even if running's not your thing, can you think of a time where you said you weren't a real fill-in-the-blank? There's some validation point—a title, a degree, a milestone, a certification—and you feel like your experience isn't valid until you reach it.

Turning that thinking outwards: They know what they're doing, and I know nothing. Annnnnnd we're back with two extremes. There's the binary of people who know everything and people who know nothing with no gradation in between. Similar to the previous example, this line of thinking invalidates what you do know, disconnecting you from your inner wisdom.

Using that thinking to evaluate a situation:  I can't succeed, or I can't be the best. So I just won't start. I'm sure that thought sounds familiar to the perfectionists reading this. Logically, you know you can't get better without practice, but all-or-nothing thinking doesn't care about improving over time. It tricks you into believing that you can only be "good" or "bad".

As you can see with each of these examples, binary thinking keeps us from our inner work by discounting our inner wisdom, discouraging us in the process, or by keeping us from starting at all.

The impact of all-or-nothing thinking

I've shared plenty of examples of how this mindset might impact you.

You might feel a sense of hopelessness that manifests as a "Why bother?" attitude.

You might skip your self-care because you don't have time to get it "right."

Maybe you're on the verge of burnout as you chase the next milestone, praying this will give you the sense of validation you're seeking.

Examples are useful to a point, but after a certain point you need to ask yourself, "How is all-or-nothing-thinking impacting me?"

Once you're aware of the impact,  you're ready to make a change.

4 tips to manage all-or-nothing thinking tendencies

  1. Start by building awareness. Your goal isn't to stop all-or-nothing thinking—at least not at the beginning. Notice where all-or-nothing thinking shows up in your life. Is it mostly in your relationships? In creative projects? In the conversations you have with yourself? The official term for this is metacognition. It just means you're thinking about your thoughts. That newfound awareness allows you create new thought patterns.
  2. Reframe your thoughts. Reframing all-or-nothing thinking can be challenging. You've probably gotten used to this way of thinking. If it's accessible to you, find a therapist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy. Your therapist will work with you to identify your trains of thought and to change the way you think. Therapists call this cognitive restructuring. No worries if therapy is out of your price range. Use a cognitive restructuring technique like Catch it, Check It, Change it to practice reframing your thoughts on your own. We also have a guided journal in the Inner Workout app to walk you through the process.
  3. Look for the third option. One of the simplest ways to overcome all-or-nothing thoughts is to look for a third option. You break the illusion of either/or when your brain sees that there are more than two options. We actually created the Inner Workout app as a third option. With practices you can complete in 10 minutes or less, you don't need 30+ minutes to practice self-care the "right" way.
  4. Cultivate a growth mindset. Coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is a mindset where "people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point." When your perfectionism tells you not to start because you don't know enough or you're not capable enough, remind yourself that growth happens through imperfect action. You can't get better if you don't start.

Final thoughts on all-or-nothing thinking, self-care, and inner work

If you saw yourself in the examples I shared in this piece, I hope you'll take it as an invitation, not an attack. It's not just you. This kind of thinking is common, and it keeps you from giving and receiving the care you deserve.

Before you close this tab and continue with your day, choose one step you'll take to shift your relationship to all-or-nothing thinking.

You don't need to do this work alone. Through our app, newsletter, podcast, and articles like these, we're always creating resources to make well-being easier.

Taylor Elyse Morrison

About the author

Taylor is the founder and author of Inner Workout. She's also an ICF-certified coach, a certified meditation + mindfulness practitioner, and was named one of Fortune's 10 Innovators Shaping the Future of Health.