How to Identify and Recalibrate All-or-Nothing Thinking
By Registered Dietitians Rachel D. and Lauren E.
What is All-or-Nothing Thinking?
All-or-nothing thinking is a negative thought pattern, where we tell ourselves that we are either perfect or have failed. We think in terms of extremes: perfect or disaster, success or failure. Thinking this way can be detrimental to your success. It ignores all the very real possibilities in between and ultimately demands perfection (2). You can recognize all-or-nothing thinking because it often contains an absolute word such as always, never, everyone, no one, can’t, anymore.
“I always overeat on holidays”
“I can’t keep from snacking at night anymore”
These statements can make us feel helpless. We may underestimate our abilities and feel like things will never get better (3). In fact, research has found that avoiding these all-or-nothing phrases is associated with improved weight-loss maintenance (1).
How Do I Recalibrate All-or-Nothing Thinking?
One of the most important ways to recalibrate your all-or-nothing mindset is to reframe your statements. Reframing is changing a thought to describe the situation from a different angle (4,6). For example:
Instead of: “I’ve already ruined the day with this cinnamon roll; I might as well eat whatever I want.”
Try: “I ate more sugar than I planned at breakfast, and I can still eat healthy the rest of the day.”
Using the word “and” can help us feel better about having both good and not-so-good choices on the same day.
Choose your four-letter-words carefully. Intensifying a statement with a swear word can intensify our negative feelings and destructive actions (1). For example:
An all-or-nothing statement like: “The weekend was a total disaster” is a statement that makes us feel pretty bad.
If we intensify this statement by saying: “The weekend was a [insert swear word here] disaster, we feel even worse!
Try reframing with: “The weekend did not go as planned. I’m learning that next time, I will bring a healthy snack with me.
When we think in terms of all-or-nothing, we also tend to have more negative thoughts about ourselves, too. All-or-nothing thinking (also called polarizing) is a type of negative thinking. Thinking more positive thoughts can also help us get out of the all-or-nothing mindset.
Ways to practice positive thinking:
Identify areas in your life where you tend to think more negatively.
Check yourself daily to evaluate if you are having more negative thoughts than positive.
Be open to humor.
Follow a healthy lifestyle.
Surround yourself with positive people that influence you to think more positively.
Practice positive self-talk.
Becoming a more positive thinker does not change overnight, however over time, it can make a big difference. Studies suggest more positive thinking can increase your lifespan, lower levels of distress, and improve coping skills during stressful times (5).
Rethink Your Day
Look at your choices in the context of the whole day.
For example, let’s say you went out to eat with one of your friends on Wednesday afternoon for lunch and ate off plan. Then you thought to yourself, “Today was a total disaster; I will just have pizza for dinner then pick up ice cream for dessert because I ruined today already.” Now you have added pizza and ice cream to your day.
Try reframing. For example, “Lunch did not go as planned, but for dinner I will have baked chicken with a side salad.” This way you avoid the extra foods that were off plan and re-motivate yourself for the following day.
Know Your Trigger Situations
If you know that evenings tend to be the most challenging time to recalibrate your all-or-nothing patterns, check in with yourself in the late afternoon. Are you bored? Stressed? Celebratory? Be proactive about these situations by choosing something to address this before you reach for food. For example, plan to tackle a project after dinner or listen to music on the commute home to unwind. If you have a game plan ahead of time to manage triggering situations or feelings, you will be less likely to slip into a negative action (4).
Changing your mindset from all-or-nothing thinking to a more positive outlook of “every bit can make a difference” is a great way to stay motivated with your health and wellness plan. Remind yourself that you can change the next bite, next meal, and next day for the better instead of thinking that your plan is ruined.
Al-Mosaiwi, M., & Johnstone, T. (2018). In an Absolute State: Elevated Use of Absolutist Words Is a Marker Specific to Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(4), 529–542. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617747074