It Doesn’t Have to be All or Nothing
By Leah R., Lifestyle Consultant &
Registered Dietitians Rachel D. and Lauren E.
What is All-or-Nothing Thinking?
So many of us can struggle with reaching our goals because we tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect. When there is one small obstacle in the way we feel that we messed up or we failed! 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). If you are using words like always, never, everyone, no one, can’t, should or shouldn’t, you may be demonstrating All-or-Nothing thinking behaviors. These behaviors can affect our mental health and self-esteem. They can also set us up for self-sabotage.
- “I always overindulge on the weekends”
- “I can never stay on track with my diet”
This negative thinking can make us feel helpless, out of control, and can make us 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 our all-or-nothing mindset is to reframe our statements. Reframing our statements can turn a negative statement that is not supportive to our journey and reframe it to be supportive and help us act in alignment with our goals. Here are some great examples of how to reframe our statements.
Instead of: “I’ve already ruined breakfast with this cinnamon roll; I might as well eat whatever I want the rest of the day.”
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. This will help us get back on track sooner than later and help us achieve our goals faster.
Choose our adjectives wisely. Intensifying a statement with an exaggeration or swear word can intensify our negative feelings and destructive actions (1). For example:
- An all-or-nothing statement like: “Last week was a failure” is a statement that makes us feel pretty bad.
- If we intensify this statement by saying: “Last week was a [insert swear word here] Failure, we feel even worse!
- Try reframing with: “Last week did not go as I hoped and I’m learning that this week I will have my meals planned ahead of time.
When we think in terms of all-or-nothing, there is no middle ground for neutral thoughts, so we also tend to have more negative thoughts about ourselves. All-or-nothing thinking can also be referred to as “polarizing.” This is a type of negative thinking behavior. When we practice positive self-talk, it can 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 and see if you can turn that into a positive statement or experience.
- Check yourself daily to evaluate if you are having more negative thoughts than positive.
- Be open to humor.
- Practice a healthy lifestyle.
- Surround yourself with positive people that encourage you to think more positively.
- Practice disrupting negative thoughts with positive self-talk.
Becoming a positive thinker does not change overnight. Our habits take time to develop. By practicing these healthier behaviors, over time they can make a big difference. Studies do suggest that 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. Your previous behavior told yourself, “I failed at making a healthy choice for lunch, I might as well just have pizza for dinner tonight and get ice cream for dessert because I totally ruined today” “I can start over tomorrow!” Now you have added pizza and ice cream to your day. Tomorrow you may not feel motivated to start over after feeling discouraged about today.
Practice healthier behavior by 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
Think about the times or even days that are more difficult to stick with your goals. Is it after work or on the weekends? Are there certain people that create sabotage or certain environments that you fall off track? Do you find it more challenging when you’re with your peers? Start noticing specifically when and why you go off plan. This is an opportunity to come up with a plan for those situations. Talk with your Livea Consultant about these difficult situations. This is a great time to recalibrate your all-or-nothing patterns. Check in with yourself and find out how you’re feeling. Are you bored, stressed, or 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 plan ahead 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. The power is within you to make lasting change!
- 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
- Bernhard, T. (2010). How to Break the Painful Habit of “All or Nothing” Thinking. PsychologyToday. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/turning-straw-gold/201907/how-break-the-painful-habit-all-or-nothing-thinking
- Bonior,A. (2018). Eight ways to catch all-or-nothing thinking. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201812/8-ways-catch-all-or-nothing-thinking
- Ely, A. V., & Cusack, A. (2015). The Binge and the Brain. Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science, 2015, cer-12-15.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020). Positive Thinking: Stop Negative Self-Talk to Reduce Stress. Mayo Clinic.https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950
- Wei-chin Hwang, (2016)Chapter 12 – Practicing Mental Strengthening: Learning Effective Thinking Strategies (Session 7 of the Treatment Manual), Editor(s): Wei-chin Hwang, Culturally Adapting Psychotherapy for Asian Heritage Populations, Academic Press, Pages 175-181, ISBN 9780124173040, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978012810404000012X
- Cooks-Campbell, Allaya. “All-or-nothing thinking: 3 ways to stop throwing in the towel.” BetterUp, 9 March, 2022. https://www.betterup.com/blog/all-or-nothing-thinking#:~:text=Signs%20of%20all%2Dor%2Dnothing%20thinking,-In%20order%20to&text=You%20often%20use%20words%20like,downsides%2C%20even%20with%20potential%20opportunities