The All-or-Nothing Thinking Trap

“Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the unusable surface.  The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Cognitive distortions are ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true.  Another way to describe it might be thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality.  Simply put, cognitive distortions are “twisted thinking.” Psychologists typically refer to somewhere between ten or twenty of these distortions.  This writing will focus on the distortion I see most often in my practice – the plague of “all-or-nothing thinking.”

All-or-nothing thinking is thinking in extreme terms of black or white. I’m either right or wrong, I’m either smart or stupid, I either believe in the existence of a Higher Power or I don’t, my life is either terrible or wonderful, I’m either a writer or a therapist.  It is a very polarized way of existing in a very gray world.  It curses us with the false perception that no other options exist.  All-or-nothing thinking traps us into feeling cornered with no exits; as a result, our amygdala sends out a signal to prepare for attack. At that time, our thoughtful, rational higher cortex (the part of the brain responsible for balanced decision making) is obstructed, and our highly reactive, cagey, jacked-up, primitive brain takes over.  Though we are not in actual physical danger, our brain lacks the capacity to distinguish between real or imagined threat.   It reacts accordingly by cuing up the “fight or flight” response. 

Fight-or-flight has historically been our greatest weapon in times of actual danger.  Keyed by our amygdala (there are actually two in our brain), this response has been by far our most powerful and oldest "wing man." During the Stone Age, this type of reactivity kept us alive by reacting quickly to frequent danger.  Temporary loss of peripheral vision, dilation of pupils, rerouting of blood to muscles, and an accelerated heart rate are all physical changes that helped us become better fighters at a moment’s notice. Around 2.5 million years ago it helped us fight or flee from predators like saber-toothed tigers and giant hyenas (yep, they had those back in the day). Today, we are no longer under constant threat so, living in amygdala-driven response is similar to pounding ("mashing" if you live in the South, like me) a square peg in a round hole.  

One of my favorite strategies for avoiding fight-or-flight arousal brought on by all-or-nothing thinking boils down to a slight diction twist. Since our brain reads limiting messages as threats, our primitive brain automatically interprets dichotomous words like “always and never” as warning signals. Such polarizing statements immediately send the message to our brain to become battle-ready.  A small word substitution can make a large difference. Substituting the word “and” for “always” or “never” can immediately unhook dichotomous thinking. For example, instead of saying “I always get nervous,” or “I’m never calm” simply say “I get nervous sometimes and other times I actually feel calm.”


This slight semantic shift sends a signal to our brain that everything is okay.  Feeling safe again enables us to enjoy moments of life that are likely bypassed when our higher cortex is on lock-down.  Moments like the view of a rising and setting of the sun, the sound of a child’s laugh, and the sensation of a dimpled texture of an orange resting in our palm. Silencing the alarm bells of our activated brain allows us to revel in the savory moments of life that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Finding True Purpose, Expressive Arts Therapy, Trauma, Relationships, Attachment, Long-Term Recovery, and the Creative Personality. For more information go to