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Dismissing The Gray Area: All or Nothing Thinking

What occurs between black and white?

Meet Sameera,

Sameera feels like she's sometimes the best, but other times she feels like a total failure. She is prone to feeling disheartened and puts a lot of emphasis on the opinions of others. This leaves her wanting to be alone. Are you able to relate to her situation?

We refer to this train of thought as "all-or-nothing thinking" or “black-and-white thinking”, which is a kind of cognitive bias.

Cognitive distortions refer to biased and irrational thinking that can lead to undesirable emotions and behaviors. It is more common in people going through depression, anxiety disorder, or other mental health conditions.

“All-or-Nothing Thinking” leaves no room for shades of grey - everything is either completely good or completely bad. People with this cognitive distortion often use extreme words like "never" or "ever." This way of thinking makes it hard for them to find solutions or options.


Spotting the Black and White Thinking

If you approach regular issues with an extremely binary mindset, you might frequently come to erroneous conclusions about other people.

Examples may well be:

  • Suddenly reclassifying individuals as “evil people” instead of “good people”

  • Firing employees or leaving a job

  • Preventing the problems from being truly resolved

Solitude and loneliness

When you see the world in black and white color, it can often make you feel like the world is against you even if that is not the case.

You can further end up isolating yourself from the world, feeling that “no one” is worthy of your trust, which can lead to loneliness.


All-or-nothing thinking can make you obsessed with perfectionism. It can make you push yourself to put unrealistic expectations on yourself, resulting in emotional outbursts if you aren’t able to achieve your goals.

To be perfect, you might set yourself up for failure or overwork yourself, which can put you in a vicious cycle of self-doubting.

Let us imagine you set up a schedule for the day. You included 6 tasks but were only able to complete 4 tasks entirely. Now you are seeing your day as a complete failure, even though you were able to get a lot of things done.

You tell yourself, “I’ve completely blown my plan for the project.”

This thought upsets you so much that you start binging your favorite shows, giving up on the situation and thinking, “I anyway wouldn’t be able to complete my tasks.”

How can this cognitive distortion impact you?

Black and White thinking or All-or-Nothing thinking doesn’t always reflect the actual reality. It makes you draw extreme conclusions based on few or no plausible evidence.

This cognitive distortion can influence you to act based on impulse and respond to the world without reflecting on the grey area. It can further take these forms:

Feeling Like a Failure

Thinking in binary makes it impossible to look at the end of the tunnel. It becomes hard to look at other alternatives to the situation.

“I am always sad, there is no hope for me”

“I am terrible at this. I might never succeed”

“Thing will remain unpleasant and there is nothing I can do about it”

Extreme statements like these can make you limit your belief system, which can also result in learned helplessness.

Learned Helplessness often occurs when you feel there is a real or perceived absence of control over the situation, so you give up and don’t even try to change anything.

Even when it is possible to alter the situation, self-doubt and lack of motivation make you helpless.

Difficulty in finding the right balance

When you draw extreme conclusions based on one or two isolated incidents, it becomes challenging to make the right decisions or to stay away from conflict.

People with this kind of thinking often blame themselves or others for being in their current reality. They can be a poor judge of character and surroundings.

It can be difficult for them to find the right balance, as they only see things as “right” or “wrong.”

Examples may include:

Situation: “He didn’t do what I asked him to do.”

Conclusion: “He must not love me anymore.”

Situation: “I wasn’t able to meet the deadline.”

Conclusion: “I am a complete failure and disaster”

Low self-esteem

Using black-and-white thinking can lead to low self-esteem because it involves categorizing things or situations as either good or bad, with no room for nuance or complexity.

This type of thinking can limit your self-beliefs and be inaccurate and can lead to negative self-judgment and feelings of inadequacy.

It can also create a rigid mindset that is resistant to change, which can further contribute to low self-esteem. By recognizing and challenging black-and-white thinking, individuals can work towards developing a more balanced and realistic perspective, which can help to improve self-esteem.

Assumptions of future reality

When we think in black and white, we can assume that if one of our experiences is bad, all of them would be bad as well.

For instance, if someone betrayed us in a relationship, we might conclude that everyone will betray us.

This may lead to our disengagement and withdrawal from our connections, which could be detrimental to our development and general well-being

Exploring the Gray Area

Now that we know how this cognitive distortion affects us, it is important to recognize them and shift our thinking patterns.

How can we do that?

Identify. Explore. Reframe.


Try to notice your thoughts and behavior when something is stressing you or you are in a challenging social or professional situation.

As you become more aware, you’ll slowly start identifying if you are following an all-or-nothing thinking pattern in challenging situations. Notice your triggers and situations where you are drawing extreme conclusions.

Call yourself out on it!

This doesn’t mean beating yourself up for it, but the opposite. Once you know that, you are following a negative pattern of thinking. Label that cognitive distortion. Remind yourself that you are indulging in this pattern and avoid making impulsive decisions.


Now that you know you are indulging in unhelpful thinking, it is time to find evidence for your thoughts.

Let’s just say you are gaslighting yourself for missing a deadline.

Instead of thinking negatively about yourself and self-doubting your capabilities, journal for proof of your statements. Write the most plausible explanation for the situation.

Polarised thinking: “I missed the deadline. I am terrible at my work.”

Explore your thought further: “I missed the deadline as I couldn’t estimate the time required to complete. It was a mistake, but I am only human. I also discovered I am good at pitching my ideas to clients. I have always been responsible in my work and I won’t let one or two isolated incidents define my worth.”

Write your thoughts and feelings regarding the situation. Try to differentiate between negative thoughts and reasonable thoughts to have a better understanding of yourself and your surroundings.


Learn to reframe your thought!

Now that you know all the likely explanations. Try to reframe your original thought.

This is also an effective strategy in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, where you replace the default thoughts with more plausible and accurate thoughts.

Let us take an example.

You are feeling bad for missing your friend’s birthday party because you had a work emergency. You are feeling like you are an awful friend for not showing up.

Now, analyze this thought. Try to think of 3 other possibilities.

  1. You are a terrible friend, and that’s why you prioritized your work.

  2. You wouldn’t be feeling horrible for missing your friend’s birthday if you didn’t care about them or were a “bad friend”

  3. There was an urgency to deal with the work. You couldn’t have escaped, or else it would have affected your growth in the company. Hence, it was important to prioritize the work at that moment.

Now, which one seems most likely?

2 and 3? or somewhere in the middle. Now that you know the reasonable answer, you can stop criticizing yourself and replace your original thought.

You can also practice mindfulness exercises that can assist you in becoming more aware of your thoughts. Your distorted thinking probably only roars back with power when you try to push them away.

You can learn to manage your thoughts without having to interact with them by practicing mindfulness.


All-or-nothing thinking, also known as black-and-white thinking, is a cognitive bias that causes individuals to see things in extremes, with no middle ground or shades of gray. This type of thinking can lead to inflexible thinking and can make it difficult for individuals to see multiple perspectives or make nuanced judgments.

It can also contribute to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and anxiety when things don’t go as planned or fall short of perfection.

This type of thinking is often associated with perfectionism, which can be detrimental to one’s mental and emotional well-being. To overcome all-or-nothing thinking, it’s important to learn to recognize it when it happens and to challenge and reframe these thoughts in a more balanced way.

This can involve learning to see shades of gray, developing a more flexible mindset, and learning to focus on progress instead of perfection.

Sameera says you can be happy again! Slow and steady wins the race and so did Sameera.

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