Is all-or-nothing thinking holding you back from your goals?

Do you ever feel that there are only two possible conclusions to a situation? Right or wrong, yes or no, fail or succeed, do or don’t?


Do you find yourself flipping between extremes in your thinking: 

  • “I am excellent at presenting” / “I’m terrible at presenting”
  • “We always get on brilliantly” / “They never want to see me”
  • “I am a fabulous parent” / “I’ve failed as a parent”
  • “This new diet is going to change my world” / “It’s not working, I quit!”

This all-or-nothing thinking can hinder us from growing or reaching our goals and damage our self-esteem. So, what can we do about it?

What is all-or-nothing thinking?

All-or-nothing thinking is a common thought distortion whereby we think in extremes. Essentially, all-or-nothing thinking tells us: “If I am not perfect then I am a failure”.

All-or-nothing thoughts lead us to envisage the worst and best outcomes from a situation or experience, without acknowledging that there’s a whole range of eventualities that may (and most likely will) happen in between. 

The triggers and effects of all-or-nothing thinking

Some of us are more prone than others but, in day-to-day scenarios, most of us subconsciously find the range between the extremes and come to reasonable conclusions. However, when faced with challenges, anxiety, difficult decisions or things that frighten us - our brain can click into all-or-nothing mode; the shades of grey vanish and we think in black and white.

Thinking this way can stop us from trying new things for fear of exposure or failure. It can weaken our ability to grow, develop or move forward in a satisfactory way.

An example of all-or-nothing thinking from my own experience:

When I first set up my coaching business, I experienced extreme highs and lows around gaining new clients. I felt elated when I got a new client, and then conversely utterly deflated when the next potential client didn’t transpire - my self-talk in both scenarios told me about the extremes of my capabilities.

Recognising that this all-or-nothing thinking was not healthy for me, or the development of my business, I started taking time to reflect on my successes with a more level head:

  • What is it about my approach that has attracted those clients?
  • What is it about them that was drawn to me?
  • Which of my messages are resonating with them? How did they find me?

Reflecting on the positives gave me the confidence to then look at when things don’t go so well, and to realise it wasn’t as black and white as I’d first believed. Learning from my successes, failures and everything in between enables me to push myself further, driving me to adapt and change my approach in response to what is and isn’t working.

Do you see patterns of all-or-nothing thinking in your life?

Steps to confronting all-or-nothing thinking

1. Recognise it

Notice when all-or-nothing thinking crops up; for example when you’re using language such as “never”, “nothing”, “always” or "can't". Pay attention to the kind of scenarios that generate these thought patterns in you.

2. Look for the shades of grey

Once you recognise your all-or-nothing thinking, you can challenge your assumptions: Ask yourself:

  • Is that true - what else might be true?
  • What other potential outcomes are there?
  • Am I being too hard on myself - how else might I look at this?

3. Hunt out the positives

Us humans have a tendency to focus on the negatives. We remember the one time something went wrong over all the times it didn’t go wrong. When you identify and celebrate your achievements rather than focusing on your faults you begin to break negative thought patterns and build self-belief.

4. Accept that things sometimes go wrong

Rather than dwelling on negative thoughts about your capabilities, be prepared to make mistakes.

5. Look for the middle ground

When the negative thought kicks in, look for a 'good enough' solution rather than thinking all is lost. For example: 

  • You didn’t write that report that you planned to do today - instead of thinking “It’s too late to do it now, I have failed”, you might think “I could do the introduction or content plan now and work on the detail tomorrow.”
  • You didn’t go for the 10-mile run you promised yourself this morning - instead of thinking “I’ve failed, now I’ll never get fit”, you might think “I’ll go for a quick jog, better than nothing, and I’m still getting some exercise."

When we challenge and change our inner dialogue and perceptions of a situation, we begin to see the spectrum of possibility between the extremes. This opens the way for learning and reflection and helps us unlock blockages and be more courageous in our actions.

All-or-nothing thinking is just one of many cognitive distortions that can lead to negative and unhelpful thoughts about ourselves and others. I work with clients to recognise and find tools and solutions to combat these negative thought patterns so they can build self-belief and confidence to move forward in a more healthy, stable and consistent manner.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can work together, do get in touch by visiting my profile and clicking “email me”.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, SE4
Written by Ali McNab, Career & Executive Coach (Dip. Transformational Coaching)
London, SE4

Ali McNab is a Transformative Coach working with people who want to make positive change in their lives or career. Ali will help you build self-awareness, self-understanding and self-belief to enable you to move forward with purpose, clarity and confidence.

Ali works with individuals and with organisations supporting staff well-being and growth.

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